Canada is poisoning wolves to deal with the disrupting effects tar sands development is having on wildlife.
02-06-2012 // Doug Inkley, John Kostyack and Sterling Miller
As the Obama administration decides whether to give the go-ahead to the 1,700-mile Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, wildlife biologists have sounded a new alarm: expanding oil and gas production is contributing to the decline of caribou herds in Alberta.
Incredibly, Canada’s proposed solution to habitat destruction from tar sands development is to destroy the wolves that prey on caribou, instead of protecting their habitat. Two particularly repugnant methods of destroying wolves – shooting wolves from helicopters and poisoning wolves with baits laced with strychnine – would be carried out in response to the caribou declines. Strychnine is a deadly poison known for an excruciating death that progresses painfully from muscle spasms to convulsions to suffocation, over a period of hours. Wildlife officials will place strychnine baits on the ground or spread them from aircraft in areas they know wolves inhabit. In addition to wolves, non-target animals like raptors, wolverines and cougars will be at risk from eating the poisoned baits or scavenging on the deadly carcasses of poisoned wildlife.
Canada’s Minister of Environment Peter Kent said in September that thousands of Alberta wolves will need to be killed to rescue caribou impacted by tar sands development. “Culling is an accepted if regrettable scientific practice and means of controlling populations and attempting to balance what civilization has developed. I’ve got to admit, it troubles me that that’s what is necessary to protect this species,” Kent commented. Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute estimates that many thousands of wolves could be destroyed over five years under Canada’s proposed plan.
The minister has it backwards. Rather than killing wolves, he should be stopping the habitat destruction and restoring habitat associated with tar sands production. Without healthy habitat, the decline of caribou is inevitable, no matter how wolves are managed. If Canada wants to protect caribou herds, the first priority should be protection and restoration of caribou habitat.
Oil and Gas Extraction Harms Caribou
Caribou have made the northern hemisphere their home for 1.6 million years, but today, some populations of caribou are declining. Environment Canada recognizes the boreal and southern mountain populations of caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Alberta as threatened. “. . . the Alberta Caribou Committee notes that three of the province’s 18 herds are at immediate risk of disappearing because of loss of habitat. Six are in decline, three are stable, and not enough is known about the remaining six to determine how well they are doing,” wrote Canadian author and Arctic specialist Ed Struzik on October 27 in Environment360. “Scientists are confident, however, that they are in decline as well, further fueling efforts to protect caribou by eradicating wolves,” he wrote.
A team of Canadian and U.S. scientists, led by Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, agrees that mining oil from tar sands is a greater threat to caribou than predation by wolves. Lu Carbyn, an Emeritus Research Scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, agrees that restoring habitat in highly disturbed oil and gas regions should be the top priority for anyone interested in caribou conservation.
The Wasser study found that in winter, when food sources for caribou diminish and the animals rely on lichen, oil production activity is at its height. Moreover, oil extracting operations take place in the same open, frozen areas that caribou use. The noise, vehicles, machinery and industrial commotion of oil extraction stress the caribou as they try to paw through the snow for sustenance. Wasser’s group recommended that high-use roads be moved out of the open, flat areas.
Tar sands extraction is one more in a long series of insults to the natural resources of Alberta. Logging and oil and gas production are also adversely altering, fragmenting and degrading the boreal forests of Canada. “At last count, 34,773 wells, 66,489 kilometers of seismic lines, 11,591 kilometers of pipelines, and 12,283 kilometers of roads had been built in caribou country in west central and northern Alberta. That doesn’t include the vast areas of forest that have been logged,” according to Struzik. As a result of this extensive habitat destruction, Struzik goes on to say that “over the past five years, the government of Alberta has spent more than $1 million poisoning wolves with strychnine and shooting them from the air. In all, more than 500 wolves” have been destroyed.
Habitat Protection, Restoration Should Be the FocusCarving up forests is threatening caribou, many experts say, including the Canadian government itself. “Boreal caribou are primarily threatened by a reduction in the availability and suitability of habitat necessary to carry out the life processes necessary for their survival and reproduction,” states Environment Canada’s proposed caribou recovery plan. More development means more habitat loss, and fewer caribou, wolves and other wildlife. All wildlife need healthy habitats to thrive.
In essence, it seems that Canada has decided to scapegoat wolves for the decline in caribou populations for the sake of promoting yet another polluting, heat-trapping fuel.
Tar Sands: an Environmental Disaster
Tar sands oil extraction is wreaking havoc on the environment in Alberta in other ways and there’ll be more through the heart of America if TransCanada gets a permit.
To produce one barrel of this heavy crude, extractors level the forest, dig up four tons of earth, consume two to four barrels of fresh water, burn large amounts of natural gas and create toxic sludge holding ponds. Multiple chemicals can escape from tar sands operations.
Then there are the holding ponds. Operations in Alberta have already created 65 square miles of toxic holding ponds, which could kill scores of migrating birds and pollute downstream watersheds if they fail.
In the United States, the pipeline could impair a broad range of habitats, including many rivers, sage grouse habitat and walleye fisheries. Once built, the pipeline could break and leak. The Keystone XL would carry tar sands sludge and bitumen, a substance more corrosive than crude oil that is thinned with other petroleum condensates and pumped at high pressure and at a temperature of more than 150 degrees through the pipeline.
Finally, there’s the issue of climate change. At a time when we should be cutting carbon emissions to stem climate change, burning more tar sands oil will inject even more heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tar sands produce more carbon pollution per barrel than conventional oil. And this does not take into consideration the destruction of trees that sequester carbon.
More tar sands oil perpetuates the nation’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and dirty 20th century energy systems for another five decades. In short, more tar sands oil means more global warming.
Scapegoating wolves to produce profits for the oil industry, all at the expense of our energy and environmental security, is wrong. Caribou and wolves need habitat. The Canadian government needs to get on board.
Doug Inkley is the National Wildlife Federation's Senior Scientist, John Kostyack is Vice President of Wildlife Conservation for the National Wildlife Federation, and Sterling Miller is the Northern Rockies NWF office's Senior Wildlife Biologist.