Linear Disturbances in the Boreal Forest of Northern Alberta

At this moment in history people are loving to hate the tar/oil sands of Alberta.  During the recent flooding in Southern Alberta, I came across gleeful tweets announcing that the flooding Athabasca River, three watersheds to the north of Alberta’s floods, had breached tailings ponds. These tweets even included links to news stories which, much less breathlessly, made clear that no such breach had occurred, was in danger of occurring, or was even a remote possibility. There are excited shouts of how large the deposits are as though an area the size of Florida or France or Azerbaijan were all being scraped into U.S. fuel tanks at this moment while, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the deposits will likely never be “recovered.”  The size of the tailings ponds, the size of the mines are described and pictured without any hint of a comparison to other open pit or even in situ mining operations.  And, although the Athabasca river has been flowing through land naturally saturated with raw bitumen for tens of thousands of years, hydrocarbons in its waters are described as something new.

I’m not dismissing the concerns or suggesting a silencing of alarm bells.  But in all the noise over the low hanging fruit of open pit mines, tailings ponds and water quality in the Athabasca watershed, I think two things have been overlooked.  The first is First Nations’ aboriginal and treaty rights, a subject I will not address here as it is, thanks to Idle No More, now receiving national and international attention.  What I am wanting to bring attention to at the moment is an issue raised in a casual conversation I had last summer and rekindled one evening recently as I was looking at the Boreal Forest around Fort McMurray on googlemaps on my smart phone.

The rekindling happened at my elderly parents’ kitchen table. For a number of years no, my parents and I have sat around that table at least once a week and explored the world either through my phone or their battered netbook.  A month or two ago we were discussing the tar sands and like most people we had little geographical context, little concept of the size of the area being disturbed.  Out came the phone. . .

As I scrolled around Alberta I came to realize that all the mines and tailings ponds around Fort McMurray didn’t really amount to much more than the area that’s been scraped over, paved, built on and populated by the million or so sewage and industrial waste producing population of metropolitan Edmonton.  Sure, people have to live somewhere, and Edmonton sure is a nice place to live. And maybe the waste from the tar sands extraction is worse than what Edmonton’s industry, sewers and residential lawns dump into the North Saskatchewan . . .

But Edmonton wasn’t built with a requirement for remediation.  No government ever said to an urban developer “Oh, and, when you’re done with it, you have to return it as much as possible to its preceding natural state.” Edmonton, like all cities, is intended to be a permanent severe modification of the landscape; Syncrude et. al., from the outset, have been understood to be great but temporary disruptions.  We could sit long into the night with Milton’s fallen angels on that little hillock in Hell debating predestination and the possibility of tar sands extraction remediation, but that also is not my subject this evening.

Here’s my subject:

As I flew over the boreal forest around Fort McMurray on my smart phone at my parents’ kitchen table, a pattern became apparent.  But this wasn’t a pattern of events or thoughts or symbols. This pattern was there on the screen in my hands, a grid, like graph paper marked on the forest (click on the pictures and they’ll get big):

Northeast of Fort McMurray

Northeast of Fort McMurray

Way Way North of Fort McMurray

Way Way North of Fort McMurray

a tar sands operation north of Fort McMurray

A tar sands operation nort of Fort McMurray, same scale as above.

Fort McMurray

The City (actually, Urban Service Area) of Fort McMurray, same scale as above.

Here was a pattern of gargantuan cross-hatching carved into the boreal forest stretching over a truly ungraspable area, far more enormous than all the tar sands mines, upgraders, refineries and tailings ponds.  And I’d never heard mention of it.

Or had I?

Remembering a conversation we’d had in passing last summer, I emailed my friend Liv.  Liv S. Vors is an Edmonton caribou biologist and food writer (we’re interdisciplinary in Edmonton: Old English scholar/artist; nurse/sausage maker; caribou biologist/food writer).  I reminded Liv of our conversation and mentioned that I was thinking of writing about these lines in the forest. Here’s how her detailed response begins:

Linear features have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species and few Albertans realize the density of such features (which include seismic lines, pipelines, logging roads, other access roads, utility corridors, multipurpose trails, etc).

It seems the gut feeling I had that the checker-board was not a good thing has scientific support.  No one expects that the dead zone of a working open pit mine will be host to a healthy ecosystem.  But the doctrine and requirement of remediation is founded on the assumption that if the closed operation is cleaned and replanted with native vegetation, native animals will move into the newly pristine area from the “undisturbed” boreal forest surrounding it.  If you build a forest, the wildlife will come.

But the surrounding forest is not undisturbed.  It is, in fact, disturbed for hundreds of kilometres around by the linear features which, as Liv told me “have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species”.  What if you build a remediated forest and no one comes? Could it happen that the seismic lines and other tracks cut into the forest have a longer lasting impact on the boreal forest than the more obvious scars of tar sands extraction?

Liv explained that the linear disturbances change the relationships between species in complicated ways — more new deciduous growth leads to more deer and moose which in turn lead to more wolves and more wolves mean more caribou are taken as prey potentially causing a population crash, perhaps to local extinction. Liv describes Alberta’s woodland caribou population as one of the least sustainable in the country, directly suggesting that the linear disturbances are the reason the caribou teeter on the edge.

Liv is careful to mention that she “can only speak about caribou with certainty here” but it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that the linear disturbances which affect such a huge area of Northern Alberta have a major impact on the entire ecosystem of the forest.  Liv suggests fuller information is available: “I know many other studies have examined the impacts of linear features on birds as well as other mammal species.”

So. While the obvious massive scars of tar sands extraction, and the greenhouse gas emissions of the industry and its massive water use remain great concerns, I simply can’t get out of my head the image of the dense network of predator highways humans have cut into the boreal forest.  Imagine all the roads of a city’s grid paved into that northern forest, and then imagine all of Alberta’s city grids paved edge to edge over thousands of square kilometres.  Would we imagine that such a project wouldn’t have an irreversible impact?

Maybe the mines and tailings ponds aren’t the biggest issue. Maybe the elephant we’re ignoring is out in the forest.

Appendix: Liv S. Vors’s full comment

Linear features have a profoundly negative impact on many wildlife species and few Albertans realize the density of such features (which include seismic lines, pipelines, logging roads, other access roads, utility corridors, multipurpose trails, etc).

I can only speak about caribou with certainty here, though I know many other studies have examined the impacts of linear features on birds as well as other mammal species.

Woodland caribou are negatively affected by linear features. But first, it’s important to know a bit about caribou life history. Woodland caribou live in groups of fewer than 30 animals, and do not migrate long distances like arctic caribou. They tend to stay in the same general area year-round, and prefer to live in old growth (>80 years old) coniferous forest and peatlands. These habitats satisfy their nutritional needs, but more importantly, they are “safe” habitats. There are few predators in old growth forest because there is little food for other ungulates like deer and moose. To make a long story short, caribou spatially separate themselves from other ungulates by using low productivity habitat.

Now, when forest age/species structure is changed, such as by logging or oil and gas infrastructure, new growth – especially deciduous species – are attractive to moose and deer. They do well where people have disturbed forest habitat. More moose, more deer = more wolves because there are more prey to sustain them. Caribou suffer increased rates of predation because they are easy to catch and have low reproductive output. It’s not that caribou and wolves cannot coexist – they have for hundreds of thousands of years – but they cannot seem to coexist when there are other prey species around to keep predator populations high.

Large features like drill pads, clear cuts, or pumpjacks are pretty obvious human features on the landscape, but the presence of linear features is less obvious. They can negatively affect caribou in a few ways. They create “edge habitat” where plant species that would otherwise not do well in an intact old growth coniferous forest can flourish. This creates food for moose and deer and can lead to elevated predator populations, as described earlier.

Another, more sinister, consequence of linear features is that they can be used as travel corridors by predators, namely wolves. In fact, one Alberta study found that caribou killed by predators were more likely to be found near linear features. It’s hard for wolves to travel through deep snow in the forest, so they will use linear features as roads. This allows them to travel further faster, and use less energy to do so. It also permits wolves easier access into once-secluded caribou habitat. When you combine the edge habitat effects with the predator highway effects, it’s little wonder that Alberta’s woodland caribou populations are among the least sustainable in the country.

A big thank you to Liv S. Vors for her generous contribution to this post.

Update, December 17, 2013: Canadian Geographic Magazine in its December issue published a map of Canada showing intact woodland remaining in the country. This map clearly shows that Alberta has very little intact woodland left.  One way or another, almost all of Alberta’s Boreal Forest has been disturbed.

Update, January 14, 2014: Today brought news of a study which shows that “Alberta Leads in disturbing natural landscape.”  I suppose some will be surprised.  I’m not.

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2 comments on “Linear Disturbances in the Boreal Forest of Northern Alberta

  1. […] some nagging doubts about the rosy claims of the pro-development side.  I have writen about some nasty destruction in the forests of northern Alberta. But, I also wonder whether the doom predictions of the other side might not be a little […]

  2. […] I’m no particular friend of the strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions […]

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