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Mackenzie Gas Project Delayed, Wildlife Wins Reprieve
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Mackenzie Gas Project Delayed, Wildlife Wins Reprieve

Wildlife in the Mackenzie River Valley have gained a reprieve as plans to industrialize their habitat have been delayed by at least a year. From Reuters:

A regulatory panel weighing a proposal for a $16.2-billion pipeline to ship gas from Canada's Arctic will not complete its report for one year, spelling another in a long list of delays for the embattled project.
The Joint Review Panel, which is examining the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, said it will release its report in December, 2009, months later that expected.
More reporting here and here.
The Joint Review Panel has a huge job ahead, and the delay in producing a final report, we hope, means that panel members are seriously weighing the significant environmental impacts of what would be Canada's largest pipeline project ever. If allowed to proceed, the project would:
    • fragment habitat for bears, caribou and wolves.
 
  • harm fish and fish habitat by increasing sediment deposition into the rivers and streams of the valley from constructing pipeline crossings.
   
  • permanently damage important breeding or staging areas for millions of geese, tundra swans and other migratory birds.
   
  • cause forests to be clear cut and heavy machinery deployed to construct the infrastructure and the new underground pipelines which would tunnel under or cross 580 rivers and streams along the way.
   
  • trigger a rush of oil and gas development in the Mackenzie Valley, which would accelerate further damage to wildlife and ecosystems.increase greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by heavy equipment and from the cutting of boreal forests, destruction of wetlands, and melting of permafrost.
  For these reasons and more, Nature Canada has opposed the project as presented by the proponents, and have called on Canada to keep the Mackenzie wild. Though the oil companies may moan about the loss of natural gas to expand their tar sands operations, the birds of Kendall Island are relatively safe, for now.

Report predicts millions of bird deaths from tar sands
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Report predicts millions of bird deaths from tar sands

Last week, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Pembina Institute and the Natural Resources Defence Council released a report describing the predicted impact of the tar sands on bird populations. The report, Danger in the Nursery, used modelling based on best current knowledge of bird populations in northeastern Alberta, combined with documented and estimated impacts of different elements of tar sands development and expansion on bird populations. The picture is grim for many reasons. Impacts include:

  • direct lost of habitat to strip mining
  • settling ponds threat to migrants
  • fragmentation and destruction of habitat from deep drilling installations with their road and pipeline networks
  • air pollution from the operations and the production and refining processes
  • water withdrawal, diversions and contamination
How do the tar sands impact habitat? Strip mining One of the most common ways to extract the bitumen, the oil saturated sand and soil particles, is by stripping the vegetation, top soil and sub soils, draining the watercourses, and then scooping it out with giant machinery. 3,000 square kilometres of boreal forest will be strip mined in the next 30 to 50 years, based on current predictions. Strip mining destroys everything in its path. All the life-giving processes are removed. Soils are “stock-piled” as they are in more familiar residential housing developments. However, once stripped and piled, the vitality of the soil is destroyed. Efforts to reclaim mined lands and restore boreal forest fail miserably. The complex relationships between soil organisms such as bacteria, fungus, plants, invertebrates and larger fauna (including birds that are the hallmark of the boreal forest) are thousands of years in the making, but take only a few moments for the giant machines to destroy. This is the fate of habitat for up to 3.6 million birds! Tailings ponds The tailings ponds are created to store and 'cap’ the residual waste product, after most of the oil has been removed from the bitumen. The residual is a toxic sludge that is pumped into artificial lakes, some several kilometres across, and 'capped' with clean water. These lakes will eventually cover about 100 square kilometres of area. They are death traps to birds landing in them, as was documented when 500 ducks died after landing in a Syncrude tailings pond in the spring of 2008. Annual mortality from tar sands to bird populations could be as high as 100,000 individuals! Deep drilling Deep drilling used to extract deeper bitumen deposits, requires a huge infrastructure of road networks, rigs, and pipelines and a reactor to produce steam. These typically burn natural gas, but there is much talk about using nuclear energy to produce steam, as is done for electrical generation. These operations and its infrastructure will destroy 5,000 square kilometres of boreal forest and result in significant fragmentation of a much larger area. These remaining fragments imbedded in the network of roads, pipelines and drilling rigs will be subject to excessive noise, dust, and pollution. Up to 14.5 million birds could be lost due to these activities! Air pollution The tar sands are by far the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada, producing as much as three times the amount of greenhouse gases as conventional oil production. In addition, production and refining operations produce huge emissions of toxins, from nitrogen oxides that acidify hundreds of square kilometres, to cadmium and arsenic that cause cancer. Many of these chemicals bioaccumulate in the food web, concentrating in predators such as birds, and ultimately impacting their reproductive success. Climate change is happening at a rate faster than wildlife can adapt, particularly in the north. For example, insect hatches on which so many species of migrating songbirds depend can be out of synch with migration timing. Water diversion and contamination Approximately one million cubic metres of water is diverted from the Athabasca River to tar sands operations each day. This water is used both in the tailings ponds and in the process to remove the oil from the soil particles. This is done by using steam, requiring vast amounts of water. The process uses approximately three times the water for every unit of oil produced. For the deep in situ extraction process, steam is injected into the ground to heat up the bitumen so that it can be pumped out. Tailings ponds are constructed in close proximity to the river, raising the potential for contamination of one of the Canada’s largest watersheds. Cancer rates in First Nations communities downstream from the tar sands operations have sky rocketed. Only 8 percent of the water removed from the river is returned. Ninety two percent ends up in the tailings ponds. The Athabasca watershed downstream is threatened, as the River is already under increasing stress from dropping water levels as the glaciers that feed into the Rocky mountains gradually retreat and sources diminish. Birds most at risk Of the 22 to 170 million birds that breed in the area that is and could be impacted by the tar sands, a large number of species are in trouble. Here are two very different examples, one big and one small. Whooping Crane The only natural population of Whooping Crane, a critically endangered species currently numbering around 400, is in Wood Buffalo National Park, directly northwest of the tar sands. The strip mines, forest fragments, and most ominously the 50 to 100 square kilometres of toxic tailing lakes which appear particularly inviting from the air, lie directly on their migration route. What are the chances over the next fifty years that a group of migrating Whooping Cranes drops out of the sky to take refuge from a storm in the toxic death traps below? Olive-sided Flycatcher Olive-sided Flycatcher was added to the official list of Canadian Species at Risk in 2007. The population of this exclusively insect eating bird has declined almost 80 percent in the last 40 years in North America. Most of its world population occurs in the Canadian boreal forest. Like many other boreal dependent species, it is being assaulted on many fronts, both on its breeding grounds, non-breeding grounds in the Amazon basin and Andean slopes of South America and during its extremely long migration in between. The Olive-sided Flycatcher lives exclusively off flying insects, catching them in flight. The boreal forest in north eastern Alberta is an important area for this species. Loss of thousands of square kilometres of habitat will remove a chunk of its population. Climate change adds an additional stress. Climate change, particularly global warming, alters hatching dates for the insects, putting this important food source out of synch with the timing of bird migration. Climate change also leads to desiccating droughts and contributes to subtle changes in habitat that have not-so-subtle impacts. The tar sands are the biggest single contributor by far to greenhouse gases in Canada. It is time to put a moratorium on the tar sands. It is also time to ask the Federal Government of Canada why it is not using the Migratory Bird Convention Act as an instrument to better protect boreal birds. This will be discussed in my next blog. (Photos: Evening Grosbeak, Jeff Nadler; Whooping Cranes, USFWS; Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mark Peck)

Politicians Persuaded to Save Canada’s Boreal Forest
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Politicians Persuaded to Save Canada’s Boreal Forest

Our friends at the Boreal Songbird Initiative pointed us to this good news piece -- unlikely as it sounds, politicians are actually listening to scientists for a change:

Politicians persuaded to save Canada boreal forest By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment CorrespondentWASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Politicians actually listened when experts told them to protect Canada's boreal forest, a potent weapon against global warming, and the plan for this vast green area could work on some of the world's other vital places, scientists told Reuters. Bigger than the Amazon and better than almost anywhere else on the planet at keeping climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere, the boreal forest stretches across 1.4 billion acres (566.6 million hectares) from Newfoundland to Alaska. More importantly, the boreal is in good condition, and the scientists' plan aims to keep it that way. "There's not a lot of these really big chunks of ecosystem left," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University, said in a joint interview on Tuesday with several environmental experts."So we understand that were we to destroy this, the consequences would be vast. The carbon implications alone are significant, especially at a time when 20 percent of global carbon emissions come from deforestation." Pimm and 13 other environmental experts are part of an international team to be formally unveiled this week, which will monitor the protection of the boreal forest... ... The plan to preserve the boreal forest picked up momentum last year when 1,500 scientists from more than 50 countries called for its protection. In July, the government of Ontario agreed to strictly protect half of its boreal lands and to sustainably manage the other half, with no extraction of minerals or other natural resources allowed. Last week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, now campaigning for re-election, pledged to do the same if he wins. Canadian businesses also have endorsed the plan, and Kallick said there is a good chance most provincial governments will as well... (read the full article).
It's encouraging to see momentum on boreal conservation. Nature Canada is among several conservation groups who have endorsed the Boreal Conservation Framework, an alliance of conservation groups, First Nations, and leading Canadian companies. As a supporter of the Framework, Nature Canada is committed to taking action on behalf of our members to protect the Boreal, by calling for:
  • protecting at least 50% of the region in a network of large interconnected protected areas, and
  • supporting sustainable communities, world-leading ecosystem-based resource management practices, and state-of-the-art stewardship practices in the remaining landscape.
We applauded Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's courageous decision to set aside half of the province's boreal forest, and Jean Charest's announcement, though made in the heat of a re-election campaign, sounds very promising as well. It's important to remember that politicians can, and will, listen to citizens, when they raise their voices loud enough. Nature Canada members have been very vocal about this issue -- through our letter-writing campaigns and petition drives -- and that has helped our efforts to keep boreal conservation on the national agenda. So thank you! And thanks for the article link, David.

Birds Benefit from Tar Sands Project Delays
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Birds Benefit from Tar Sands Project Delays

The economic turmoil roiling the world markets is creating one silver lining, at least from a bird conservation point of view: Energy companies are cutting back or delaying projects in the Canadian oil sands. All the big players, including Suncor, Encana and Royal Dutch Shell, have reduced their plans -- and it's not just the plummeting price of oil. From Bloomberg News:

U.S. policies that discourage fuel purchases from heavy- polluting sources are further reducing incentives to exploit oil sands. The crude creates three times more greenhouse gases than conventional wells, and a U.S. law enacted in December bans federal agencies from buying fuels that cause more emissions than alternatives.
Oil-sands mines along the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, Alberta, can be 80 meters (262 feet) deep and claimed almost 500 square kilometers (311 square miles) of forest. They have created bitumen and clay-laden ponds with an oily sheen of grays and green hues that have killed scores of birds. In fact, nearly a dozen tailings ponds line both sides of the Athabasca River and pose a serious threat to the entire Mackenzie River basin. Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. The ponds, which contain a thick mix of water, oil and clay, give off a strong aroma of hydrocarbons and rarely freeze. Fish, birds and other wildlife face death from swimming in or drinking from the ponds. Human communities are also at risk from the tar sands operations. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers reports that of 25 chemicals found in every tailings pond and studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are human carcinogens. It's time to put the brakes on what we know is the dirtiest form of oil on the planet.

Tell Canada’s Prime Minister: Don’t Forget the Environment
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Tell Canada’s Prime Minister: Don’t Forget the Environment

Canadians elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a second minority government on October 14. Now, as the Prime Minister sets his agenda for the future, help ensure that nature conservation is not forgotten! Send a letter urging the Prime Minister to make the following actions a top priority of his Government:

  • Recognize that protected areas are key to curbing carbon emissions, and commit to completing Canada’s network of national wildlife areas, national parks, national marine protected areas and migratory bird sanctuaries.
  • Work with the provinces to achieve a country-wide goal of protecting a minimum of 50 percent of Canada’s boreal forest.
  • Ensure that the Arctic environment (including habitat for terrestrial and marine wildlife and migratory birds) is protected from the impacts of oil and gas development and shipping.
  • Commit Canada to becoming a world leader in the production of low-impact renewable sources of electricity, heat and fuels by 2020.
  • Recognize that the economy and the environment are interconnected, and create water, energy and agriculture policies that are environmentally sustainable.
By sending a letter to the Prime Minister, you’re sending a signal that a healthy environment is important to you, and that it should be important for him too.

Boreal Protection in Ontario Earns Gratitude from United States
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Boreal Protection in Ontario Earns Gratitude from United States

From the Christian Science Monitor:

It may be the biggest conservation victory for the US in decades. It ensures that massive amounts of greenhouse gases won't be released to add to global warming. It ensures an abundance of birds for generations of Americans to enjoy. And you may not have heard anything about it. That's because it just happened in Ontario, Canada.
They're writing, of course, about Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's announcement this summer to set aside half of the province's boreal forest -- a "staggering" amount of land equal to 20 percent of Ontario's land mass. It's the largest area of land ever granted protection at one time. And as Jeff Wells, David Wilcove and Scott Weidensaul write, it's a courageous decision that benefits people and animals far beyond Ontario, largely because by leaving intact forest habitat of this size, the government is helping to mitigate against global warming:
Scientists identify the Canadian boreal forest, larger than the remaining Brazilian Amazon, as one of the world's largest and most intact forest ecosystems. It stores 186 billion tons of carbon –equivalent to 27 years of the world's carbon dioxide fossil fuel emissions – and provides habitat for billions of breeding birds, plus many other wildlife species.
The decision to protect such a large tract of land is significant because it reflects an understanding of what is required to truly maintain a healthy ecosystem:
In recent years, scientists have increasingly come to realize that the old benchmark of protecting 10 to 15 percent of an ecosystem is not enough. That level of protection cannot ensure that abundant wildlife, clean air and water, and a stable climate are maintained. Instead, scientists recommend a benchmark closer to 50 percent protection. McGuinty's bold announcement is one of the few instances where a government leader has met these recommended goals.
Now, the decision did not receive blanket praise when it was announced back in July -- efforts to protect the boreal don't end here. For example, read David Suzuki's qualified congrats and Greenpeace's response to see how much still needs to be done to secure a healthy Boreal Forest in the long term. Nevertheless, while summer may be drawing to a close it's still nice to see that the biggest news of the year for nature conservation is still garnering attention.

Government Aware of Mackenzie Gas Project threats to Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
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Government Aware of Mackenzie Gas Project threats to Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Deceptions around the Mackenzie Gas Project are surfacing. This recent article about the report on impacts to Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary reminds me of the promise by the Chinese government to allow protesters as a condition for hosting the Olympic games. They make a promise they're not likely to keep and they get the games. Then they break their promise (oh surprise!) but what can the world do...? The proponents of the Mackenzie Gas Project have promised (among MANY other things) that they will keep the footprint on Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary under the 1% disturbance threshold set by Environment Canada (something Nature Canada believes they can't accomplish because the 1% threshold has already been surpassed). In this case the rest of the story has yet to unfold; I hope the Joint Review Panel will not be fooled like the world was with the Chinese government's promise. Nature Canada has regularly given testimony to the Joint Review Panel studying the merits of the proposed Mackenzie Gas Project. At the closing of almost two years worth of hearings in November 2007 we told the Panel that the project should not be approved. Our message: The full impact of the project on the lands, water and wildlife of this unique environment will leave an unacceptable footprint, and important bird habitat like the Kendall Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary would be permanently damaged by such massive industrialization. There are many problems with the Mackenzie Gas Project from the perspective of truly sustainable development. But they can be boiled down to one: that this project and the development it would trigger would preempt the establishment of land use plans and protected areas in the Mackenzie Delta and Valley. This kind of a basin opening project should not be approved until the NWT Protected Areas Strategy is fully implemented. You can read more about the Mackenzie Gas Project and the negative environmental impacts it would have on this pristine river basin on our website. Photo: I took this picture from the airplane somewhere approaching Inuvik, in November 2007. Perhaps because I was a bit disappointed that it was late November and I wasn't going to see any birds, here, I thought, were two ducks looking at each other.

Celebrating Alaska’s Important Bird Areas
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Celebrating Alaska’s Important Bird Areas

Image of map of IBAs of Alaska

As part of BirdLife International, we’re celebrating the recent publication of a map of the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of Alaska. Extensive identification efforts by Audubon Alaska have resulted in the designation of 145 IBAs for birds such as Kittlitz's Murrelets, Emperor Geese and Bar-tailed Godwits. With 69 IBAs of global significance, Alaska has the highest number of globally significant IBAs of any US state.
These sites join a network of thousands of IBAs stretching throughout the hemisphere and around the world, including close to 600 IBAs that we've identified in Canada. By identifying the world’s sites that are critical to the survival of birds, the BirdLife partnership highlights their importance and is taking concrete steps to ensure that these sites continue to play their vital roles for the conservation of global bird species. You can download a copy of this map (including stunning original species illustrations by renowned bird artist David Allen Sibley) here.
Bravo Audubon Alaska!

Ontario promises to protect 225,000 sq kms of boreal
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Ontario promises to protect 225,000 sq kms of boreal

Yesterday the Liberal government of Ontario announced measures to protect the far north boreal forest as part of a land-use planning process that is to get underway next month. A threshold of 50% of the far north will be protected from industrial development and the remaining land will allow carefully managed sustainable development. This is a landmark initiative for a few reasons. It is a committment to a land use planning process that will involve scientists, First Nations, Metis and local communities. It will protect high value conservation lands for many species including woodland caribou, wolverines, and the breeding grounds of thousands of boreal birds. These conservation lands will help mitigate the impacts of climate change and increase the adaptation potential for species and people inhabiting the region. Importantly the announcement also includes a review of Ontario's antiquated Mining Act. Nature Canada wishes to congratulate the government of Ontario and the conservation community in the province who has been working hard for years to bring about this initiative. Bravo! Hopefully the leadership and vision shown in Ontario will provide an example for the other provinces and make Canada world leaders in conservation and sustainable development. We will be watching closely as the process unfolds.

Save Our Boreal Birds!
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Save Our Boreal Birds!

The Save Our Boreal Birds Campaign is going strong – nearly 48,000 people from 62 countries have signed our petition to protect the Boreal Forest for the more than 300 bird species that regularly breed in the region!
Haven’t signed yet? Check out the petition and add your name. Canada’s Boreal Forest stretches from the Yukon to Newfoundland, and at 1.4 billion acres it is one of the world’s most important ecosystems. It hosts an incredible diversity of breeding birds, including year-round residents like Boreal Chickadee (photo by Jeff Nadler) and Gray Jay; nomadic breeders such as White-winged Crossbill and Pine Siskin; and warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, and other migratory species that breed in the Boreal each summer and then migrate southward throughout much of the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the Boreal Forest is steadily being carved up by unchecked oil and gas, mining, logging, and hydro development. While less than 8% of the Boreal is permanently protected, already 30% has been allocated to industry. In recent years, long-term declines in many Boreal bird species have been reported. Rusty Blackbirds have declined by 95%, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadees, Bay-breasted and Canada Warblers, and Evening Grosbeaks by more than 70%, and scaup and scoters by over 50%. Nature Canada, Ontario Nature, Boreal Songbird Initiative and many other conservation groups have joined together to launch the Save Our Boreal Birds Campaign to demand the Canadian Government commit to protecting at least 50% of the Boreal and supporting sustainable development practices in the remaining areas. Thank you to everyone who has signed our petition so far!

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