Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailings Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada

[ "Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, 1355 Oxford Street, Halifax, NS B3H 4J1, Canada"]
The Wilson Journal of Ornithology (Impact Factor: 0.6). 08/2010; 122(Sep 2010):569-576. DOI: 10.1676/09-181.1


Open pit bitumen extraction is capable of causing mass mortality events of resident and migratory birds. We investigated annual avian mortality in the tailings ponds of the Athabasca tar sands region, in northeastern Alberta, Canada. We analyzed three types of data: government-industry reported mortalities; empirical studies of bird deaths at tailings ponds; and rates of landing, oiling, and mortality to quantify annual bird mortality due to exposure to tailings ponds. Ad hoc self-reported data from industry indicate an annual mortality due to tailings pond exposure in northeastern Alberta of 65 birds. The self-reported data were internally inconsistent and appeared to underestimate actual mortality. Scientific data indicate an annual mortality in the range of 458 to 5,029 birds, which represents an unknown fraction of true mortality. Government-overseen monitoring within a statistically valid design, standardized across all facilities, is needed. Systematic monitoring and accurate, timely reporting would provide data useful to all concerned with bird conservation and management in the tar sands region.

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Available from: Kevin P. Timoney, Oct 05, 2015
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    • "Potential impacts of oil and gas exploration and extraction on avian populations vary from habitat loss and fragmentation (Bayne et al. 2005, Machtans 2006), introduction of exotic/ invasive species (Cameron et al. 2007), and chronic industrial noise affecting pairing success and population age structure (Habib et al. 2007). Industrial activities associated with the oil and gas industry can also cause long-term changes in habitat supply and quality related to succession of disturbed habitats (Lee and Boutin 2006), mortality due to oil contamination in tailings ponds (Wells et al. 2008, Timoney and Ronconi 2010), and sublethal effects such as reduced nestling growth (Gurney et al. 2005), hormonal stress, and reduced nesting success (Wayland and Smits 2004, Gentes et al. 2006). In addition, oil and gas exploration and infrastructure development conducted during the breeding season could also result in the unintentional destruction of nests, eggs, nestlings, and/or adult migratory birds. "
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    ABSTRACT: Annual mortality within bird populations can be attributed to numerous sources; however, the extent to which anthropogenic sources of mortality contribute to avian demography is largely unknown. Quantifying the relative magnitude of human-related avian mortality could inform conservation efforts, particularly if multiple sources of human-related mortality can be contrasted. The unintentional destruction of nests and their contents by industrial activities conducted during the breeding season of resident and migratory birds presumably leads to one such source of human-caused avian mortality. As part of a broader effort to quantify major sources of human-related avian mortality, we estimated the magnitude of nest loss resulting from the terrestrial oil and gas sector in Canada, including: (1) seismic exploration, (2) pipeline right-of-way clearing, (3) well pad clearing, and (4) oil sands mining within the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB). We estimated nest losses as the product of estimated nest densities, the area disturbed annually, and the proportion of annual disturbance presumed to occur during the breeding season. The estimated number of nests disturbed annually by all oil and gas sectors combined ranged between 11,840 – 60,380. Interannual variation in exploration and extraction, and uncertainty in nest densities and the proportion of the disturbances occurring during the breeding season contributed to the variation. Accounting for natural mortality suggests an estimated loss of 10,200 – 41,150 (range) potential recruits into the migratory bird population in a subsequent year. Although nest destruction is only one small component of the potential impacts of the oil and gas industry upon avian populations, these estimates establish a baseline for comparison with other sources of human-caused avian mortality. Models are now needed to compare nest losses against the legacy effects of oil and gas sector habitat disturbances and associated cumulative effects so that mitigation efforts can be prioritized.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2013 · Avian Conservation and Ecology
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    • "Process-affected waters from surface mining are currently retained in large exposed ponds, and contain roughly 0.7 km 3 of tailings in 130 km 2 of constructed ponds (Gosselin et al., 2010). However, past instances of tailings pond dyke seepage that was found to be acutely toxic to some aquatic species (Hrudey, 1975), and ongoing fatalities to migratory birds (Timoney and Ronconi, 2010) may provoke disposing process-affected waters into subsurface reservoirs as an alternative to exposed tailings ponds. Successfully containing in situ injections and processaffected waters at depth requires that these fluids remain in the subsurface. "
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    ABSTRACT: Thousands of oil and gas platforms are currently operating in offshore waters globally, and this industry is expected to expand in coming decades. Although the potential environmental impacts of offshore oil and gas activities are widely recognized, there is limited understanding of their impacts on migratory and resident birds. A literature review identified 24 studies and reports of bird-platform interactions, most being qualitative and half having been peer-reviewed. The most frequently observed effect, for seabirds and landbirds, is attraction and sometimes collisions associated with lights and flares; episodic events have caused the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of birds. Though typically unpredictable, anecdotally, it is known that poor weather, such as fog, precipitation and low cloud cover, can exacerbate the effect of nocturnal attraction to lights, especially when coincidental with bird migrations. Other effects include provision of foraging and roosting opportunities, increased exposure to oil and hazardous environments, increased exposure to predators, or repulsion from feeding sites. Current approaches to monitoring birds at offshore platforms have focused on observer-based methods which can offer species-level bird identification, quantify seasonal patterns of relative abundance and distribution, and document avian mortality events and underlying factors. Observer-based monitoring is time-intensive, limited in spatial and temporal coverage, and suffers without clear protocols and when not conducted by trained, independent observers. These difficulties are exacerbated because deleterious bird-platform interaction is episodic and likely requires the coincidence of multiple factors (e.g., darkness, cloud, fog, rain conditions, occurrence of birds in vicinity). Collectively, these considerations suggest a need to implement supplemental systems for monitoring bird activities around offshore platforms. Instrument-based approaches, such as radar, cameras, acoustic recordings, and telemetry, hold promise for continuous monitoring. Recommendations are provided for a rigorous and comprehensive monitoring approach within an adaptive management framework.
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