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Tar sands, birds don’t mix

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that migrating birds are being negatively affected by oil extraction in Canada’s Boreal forest?

Jennifer Chase

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Each year tens of million of migratory birds “overwinter” in the Canadian Boreal forest, a vast tract of mostly uninhabited coniferous woodlands and wetlands stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon. Environmentalists are worried about the impact of increasing “tar sands” oil development there and the impact on wildlife populations continent-wide.

A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) concluded that almost half of the 292 migratory bird species that overwinter in Canada’s Boreal forest — as many as 75 million birds — are threatened by future tar sands development. 

“The direct and indirect impacts to birds from tar sands development are immense,” states the report. “Waterfowl and shorebirds land in tailings ponds that they mistake for natural water bodies and become oiled with waste bitumen and toxic elements.” The result can be birds drowning, dying from hypothermia or otherwise suffering from the ingestion of toxins. “Toxins from the tailings ponds and other pollutants from tar sands operations leak millions of gallons of toxic liquid waste into wetlands and forests each day, further contaminating habitat,” the groups add.

Tar sands development also contributes disproportionately to climate change. U.S. State Department analysis shows that tar sands oil is 20 percent more carbon pollution intensive than conventional oil on a “well-to-wheel” basis. The effects of global warming on Canada’s Boreal forest are likely to include shifting food supplies, increasing numbers of damaging wildfires in forests, more droughts in wetlands and potentially dramatic changes in vegetation and the relationships between predators and prey.

Environmentalists would like to see U.S. lawmakers deny permits for the transport of Canadian Boreal tar sands oil — most of which is extracted in land-locked regions — through the U.S. in hopes of making future tar sands projects there too expensive to be worthwhile.

Contacts: NWF, www.nwf.org; NRCM, www.nrcm.org.

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