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This article was published 11/7/2011 (3319 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EDMONTON -- Environmentalists are worried the Alberta government isn't doing enough to protect whooping cranes from oilsands development, as new data shows the endangered species continues to migrate through an increasingly industrialized region.
"Whooping cranes need to be given their due consideration and we haven't seen that to date," said Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch, which issued a new report Sunday that combined information on the birds' migration paths with the location of oilsands facilities.
Whooping cranes are North America's tallest birds and one of the continent's most endangered. Reduced to a mere 22 individuals in 1941, careful conservation efforts have restored populations to about 300.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alone continues to spend about US$6.5 million every year on those efforts.
Twice a year, the birds migrate between their breeding grounds in northern Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park and the Gulf of Mexico coast in Texas, a route that takes them through Alberta's oilsands region.
In 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey together with other groups, including the Canadian Wildlife Service, put GPS transmitters on 12 whooping cranes to follow their progress. The study is scheduled to last through 2015.
Preliminary data from last fall indicates nine of the birds flew through and stopped in the oilsands region, said Lee, who has seen the study. Whoopers typically migrate in family groups of two to four birds.
Lee said those findings are consistent with earlier studies, which found more than a dozen whooping crane stopping sites in and around the oilsands region. Lee's study plots those sites on a map together with oilsands facilities, including tailings ponds, as of last January.
"It's definitely a serious and growing threat to these birds," Lee said.
His report says recent studies link oilsands development to declining environmental quality in the region.
"Declines in water quality of the Athabasca River and its surrounding wetlands could render the region inhospitable to cranes," it reads.
Tailings ponds also present a hazard to water birds.
"Bird deterrents are not 100 per cent effective," says the report.
Lee pointed out the Alberta government has no whooping crane conservation strategy. Nor has the issue been given any sort of sustained attention in regulatory hearings for new oilsands facilities.
The small population of whoopers makes them vulnerable to a single catastrophic event, Lee said.
As Alberta finalizes its land-use planning for the oilsands region, the presence of whooping cranes needs to be a factor, Lee said.
"They need their due consideration in all the approvals of oilsands developments, all the tenures that are issued and all the land-use planning decisions that are made."
Although the number of whooping cranes continues to slowly increase, Lee said that's more due to the extraordinary efforts of conservation officers than a sign the population is healthy and self-sustaining.
Dave Ealey of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development said the department is aware whooping cranes fly through the oilsands. But their time there is too brief, rare and unpredictable to do much about it, he said.
"There's no doubt they stop occasionally, but there's no place they stop consistently."
Ealey said the only important whooping crane habitat in Alberta is located in Wood Buffalo, which is managed by the federal government through Parks Canada.
Alberta welcomes new research on the birds and participates in federal whooping crane recovery programs, he said.
"If there's new information coming along, I would expect our guys to follow up on that."
Lee said the presence of one of the conservation movement's poster species in the rapidly industrializing region should give Albertans pause.
"If society decides to still go ahead with new project development, that's society's decision, but at least the evidence and information needs to be up front."
-- The Canadian Press
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