The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) released the first comprehensive report on the status of Alberta’s species in the Athabasca Oil Sands Area (AOSA). Found in northeastern Alberta, the AOSA makes up 14% of Alberta’s land area, and is central to Alberta’s economy. Situated within the Boreal Forest Natural Region, the AOSA has a robust forest industry. It also contains the Athabasca oil sands deposit, which represents 77% of Canada’s proven oil reserves and supports a growing energy extraction sector.
“The Status of Biodiversity in the Athabasca Oil Sands Area” assessed the current condition of more than 350 species in the entire AOSA; the active in-situ oil sand production sub-region; and the mineable sub-region and found the Biodiversity Intactness Index to be, on average, 94%, 91%, and 86% for each of the regions, respectively.
The Biodiversity Intactness Index is a measure of how much more or less common a species is relative to an undisturbed landscape free of human footprint. The high intactness value for the overall AOSA is due to its relatively low human footprint, the report found.
As of 2010, 6.8% of the AOSA showed visible evidence of human footprint, with forest harvesting accounting for the largest human footprint type in the region at 3.1%. Human footprint in the Active In-situ region was 7.7%; whereas, in the Surface Mineable Region, it measured 20.8%. Energy infrastructure was the largest human footprint type in the Surface Mineable Region at 16.8%.
In the Mineable Region, where human footprint is higher, the biodiversity intactness is 8% lower. Even though active surface mines have a biodiversity intactness near 0%, much of the land base in the Mineable Region is not currently developed. These undeveloped areas have higher biodiversity intactness.
At present, the report noted, the biggest ecological change in the AOSA is associated with higher-than-expected abundances of species that thrive in areas with human development, such as the coyote and song sparrow.
Species that prefer old-forest habitat, such as the marten, fisher, and bay-breasted warbler are examples of species found to be less abundant than would be expected in an undisturbed area.
Of species at risk in the AOSA, the Woodland Caribou has the highest public profile. Government of Alberta data show that Woodland Caribou populations in the AOSA have been consistently declining over the past 20 years. ABMI analysis shows that the total amount of human footprint in all Woodland Caribou ranges increased between 2007 and 2010. In 2010 human footprint varied from a low of < 1% in the Richardson population range to a high of 7% in the Nipisi population range.
The report also detected non-native weeds at 32% of the sites surveyed. At sites where they were found, an average of 2.1 non-native weed species were detected.
With the AOSA 94% intact today, there’s still significant opportunity for land and resource managers to make informed and deliberate choices about its future. As development continues to unfold in the region, the ABMI will continue to measure and report on the changing state of biodiversity.—“The Status of Biodiversity in the Athabasca Oil Sands Area”
Over the next few years, the ABMI will broaden its assessment of biodiversity to include status and trend reporting for lichens and wetlands, as well as trend analysis for all species groups included in this report. These same assessments will be generated for the Peace River and Cold Lake Oil Sands Areas.
Data and information used in this report was partially funded through the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program, a joint federal-provincial environmental monitoring program established in 2012. JOSM was designed to ensure that air, water, biodiversity and toxicology monitoring efforts in the AOSA are independent, credible, coordinated and transparent.