Environmental groups say oilsands could harm endangered whooping crane

Jul 11, 2011 | Vancouver Sun by Randy Boswell | Related Press

Wildlife advocates on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border are raising concerns about the future prospects of the whooping crane — the continent’s most iconic endangered species — with new claims that the bird’s only wild population faces growing threats from oilsands developments near its summer breeding grounds in northern Alberta and from a proposed nuclear power plant near its yearly wintering site in Texas.

In separate announcements highlighting the twin dangers said to be faced by North America’s rarest and tallest bird at the extreme ends of its 4,000-kilometre annual migration route, environmentalists in both countries are urging governments to put the survival of the “archetypal symbol of North American conservation” ahead of the offending energy developments.

Texans for a Sound Energy Policy, an Austin-based group opposed to the planned nuclear plant north of Corpus Christi, are hailing a decision by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow the fate of the whooping cranes that winter at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to be carefully considered during the approval process for the new power project.

The commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, in a ruling issued June 30, accepted TSEP’s contention that the proposed nuclear plant’s water requirements could reduce freshwater flows and increase salinity around the whooping cranes’ Texas habitat, and that the potential threat qualifies for full scrutiny during an upcoming environmental review.

“The whooping crane is the icon of the Endangered Species Act, and there has never been a nuclear power plant sited in a location where the Department of the Interior and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have so much at stake,” TSEP attorney Jim Blackburn said in a statement. “We are heartened that the NRC has admitted this issue for further litigation.”

In this country, meanwhile, Edmonton-based Global Forest Watch Canada issued a report Monday that identifies extensive overlaps between the whooping crane’s annual migration route and oilsands developments in northeastern Alberta.

The group argues that the birds face an increasing risk of landing in areas being mined by oilsands companies, which include 170 square kilometres of “toxic tailings ponds” — the type of wastewater sites that in recent years sparked an international uproar after the deaths of hundreds of migrating ducks.

“The whooping crane is an archetypal symbol of North American conservation,” Peter Lee, executive director of Global Forest Watch Canada, said in a summary of the study. “The magnificent bird is endangered in both Canada and the United States, and exists only in North America. Still, there is little evidence that the governments of Alberta and Canada have adequately considered whooping cranes in the approval of industrial developments in Alberta’s oilsands region.”

The study states that “exposure to tailings ponds represents a risk of oiling and ingestion of toxins” by whooping cranes. It also warns that “exposure to air emissions, food web contaminants, and declining water quality, as well as exposure to the expanding power line infrastructure also represent risks” to the species.

“The rapid pace and large scale of Alberta’s oilsands industrial developments within the flight path of migrating whooping cranes raises the concern that damage may already be done,” Lee claimed in the report overview. “Considering the endangered status of the whooping crane and its central place in North American conservation, it is imperative that adequate information about the conservation needs of whooping cranes are dealt with explicitly in land use plans, environmental impact assessments and approvals for industrial developments.”

Down to just 21 individuals in 1941, the last naturally-migrating whooping crane flock in the world now numbers around 300 birds and nests each summer at Wood Buffalo National Park along the Alberta-Northwest Territories border. Each fall, the birds fly the length of Midwestern North America to spend the winter at the Aransas refuge along the Gulf Coast.

The die-off of about 25 whooping cranes in Texas during the winter of 2008-09 was blamed by some experts on restricted water flows from the Guadalupe River disrupting the cranes’ food supply and other aspects of their feeding regime in the Aransas refuge.

U.S. environmentalists, including TSEP, targeted the Texas state water regulator over the episode, arguing that a variety of developments within the watershed — including the planned nuclear power plant — posed an ongoing threat to the high-profile, binational conservation effort to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction.

There are two other semi-wild whooping crane populations with about 250 birds in total: a captive flock in Florida and a Wisconsin-based migratory flock trained to follow an ultralight aircraft to Florida each winter as part of a unique, Canadian-led recovery project.

Earlier this year, U.S. wildlife officials started another managed flock in Louisiana, part of a proposed diversification of winter feeding sites that is considered crucial to eventually removing the species from the North American endangered list.

Whooping crane eggs produced at a captive-breeding centre at the Calgary Zoo were transported to U.S. earlier this year as part of the Louisiana repopulation effort.

Chicks hatched from the eggs were shipped to Louisiana from a Maryland facility partnered with the Alberta zoo in the bid to rebuild whooping crane numbers.

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