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Conservation Groups: Canada's Tar Sands Extraction Violates International Wildlife Treaties

Petition asks U.S. Interior Dept. to investigate Canada’s failure to protect threatened caribou and migratory birds
September 22, 2011
Oakland, CA  — 

Today, conservation groups represented by Earthjustice and Ecojustice Canada, submitted a petition to Interior Secretary Salazar asking him to report to President Obama that Canada’s destructive tar sands extraction undermines international efforts to protect endangered and threatened species. The petition documents how tar sands mining and drilling in Alberta is harming at least 130 migratory bird species, including endangered whooping cranes, as well as threatened woodland caribou herds.

An American law known as the Pelly Amendment requires the Secretary of the Interior to determine whether foreign activities are weakening treaties that protect threatened species—in this case, the Western Hemisphere Convention and the Migratory Bird Convention. If so, Interior must report those conclusions to the President, who is then authorized to take action such as trade sanctions to discourage such activities.

Tar sands mining operations destroy forests and wetlands, with vast drilling infrastructure, open pit mines, and toxic wastewater ponds up to three miles wide, permanently damaging the environment. (Velcrow Ripper / Flickr)
Alberta, Canada. Tar sands mining operations permanently damages the environment, destroying forests and wetlands, with vast drilling infrastructure, open pit mines, and toxic wastewater ponds up to three miles wide.
(Velcrow Ripper / Flickr)

“Tar sands mining in Canada is destroying huge areas of important habitat and releasing toxic pollutants that poison wildlife, including internationally protected migratory birds and woodland caribou,” said Sarah Burt, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “The resulting harm to these species not only undermines international protections but also impairs U.S. conservation efforts for migratory species. This petition identifies a way for the U.S. government to strengthen endangered species protection by encouraging Canada to improve its management of the environmental hazards of tar sands extraction.”

Tar sands exploitation impacts wildlife in many ways. Oil extraction creates toxic wastewater pits up to three miles wide. Waterfowl and shorebirds, mistaking these pits for natural ponds, land in the contaminated water and become oiled. They then drown, die from hypothermia, or suffer from ingestion of toxins. “Endangered whooping cranes are particularly vulnerable to the risk of landing in a tailings pond, as the entire global population of wild, migratory whooping cranes migrates through the tar sands region twice each year,” said James Murphy, senior counsel at National Wildlife Federation.

Named for their distinctive whooping calls, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America and one of its most endangered; there are only 400 or more whooping cranes left in the wild today. (FWS)
Named for their distinctive whooping calls, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America and one of its most endangered; there are only 400 or more whooping cranes left in the wild today. (FWS)

Toxic chemicals from tar sands operations also leak into wetlands and forests, contaminating important habitat for migratory birds. The strip-mining of more than one million acres of forests and wetlands in Alberta’s boreal forest would also result in the loss of important breeding habitat for millions of birds.

The associated construction of wells, roads, refineries and other infrastructure destroys critical habitat for threatened woodland caribou in the tar sands region, which have declined more than 50 percent over their last three generations. Habitat disruption and fragmentation—due in large part to tar sands activities—are the driving forces of this population decline. However, the Canadian government has failed to take the steps necessary to protect woodland caribou. “The evidence is clear that woodland caribou in that region will be gone in the next few decades if tar sands development continues unabated” said Melissa Gorrie, staff attorney with Ecojustice Canada. “Since the Canadian government refuses to act we seek international intervention.”

Finally, as a significant contributor to global warming, tar sands operations impact migratory birds and caribou by increasing insects, wildfires, droughts, and shifts in vegetation and predators in the region.

"There is clear evidence that tar sands development, both mining and drilling operations, destroys bird and caribou habitat,” said Danielle Droitsch, senior advisor to the International Program at Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now we are facing the loss of millions of migratory birds and the extinction of local caribou herds.The Canadian government has not taken any affirmative action that would prevent this from happening, so this petition is needed, asking the U.S. government to step in."

Conservation groups on the petition include Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Council of Canadians, Environmental Defence, Forest Ethics, Friends of the Earth, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nebraska Sierra Club, Sierra Club, and Voices for Progress.

Read the petition.


Contact:
Sarah Burt, Earthjustice, (510) 599-8573
Melissa Gorrie, Ecojustice Canada, (780) 428-0033
James Murphy, National Wildlife Federation, (802) 552-4325
Danielle Droitsch, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 615-3770