Our environmental programs and initiatives aim to ensure our actions today do not have a long-term permanent impact on local ecosystems. As well, through our reclamation activities, our goal is to return disturbed land to a capability equivalent to that which existed prior to mining activity. This includes re-establishing native vegetation and wildlife habitats that are consistent with the natural variability found in the region.
Syncrude uses pre-development conditions as a guide in closure planning and towards creating a landscape for wildlife to return. A number of inputs guide our reclamation, including the range of vegetation diversity prior to disturbance. We also use Habitat Suitability Index modelling as a tool to compare the capability of the pre-development landscape to that of our reclaimed sites for key indicator species.
We employ the principles of the mitigation hierarchy in all aspects of wildlife management from planning through construction, operation to closure, and use this hierarchy to reduce negative effects on all wildlife, including Species at Risk and Species of Cultural Significance.
It is important to demonstrate that our land reclamation practices are creating productive habitats for local species to return, including those of traditional value to Indigenous communities. We utilize a number of monitoring techniques such as visual observations, capture and release of birds, acoustic and ultrasonic recordings, motion-activated cameras, and track plates to detect and document the diversity of wildlife using reclaimed land. Due to COVID restrictions in 2020, bird banding and wildlife monitoring on reclaimed areas were not carried out, however cameras continued to be utilized in a limited capacity.
Under normal conditions, wildlife monitoring activities include the Institute for Bird Populations’ Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. Through this continent-wide bird banding program, researchers effectively monitor bird reproduction, survivorship and habitat use of reclaimed, disturbed and natural sites. Information collected contributes to a large database that is managed by the institute.
During the 2019 MAPS program, about 1,900 birds of 59 species were captured and released at eight stations, of which approximately 1,300 birds of 54 species occurred at six stations on reclaimed land. Since wildlife monitoring began in 2011, 156 species have been detected on our reclaimed areas, including 34 species of concern. The program will resume at Syncrude in 2021.
Automated audio and ultrasonic recordings collected over the years also add to the evidence that wildlife are returning to reclaimed areas. These have recorded the calls of boreal chorus frogs, wood frogs and Canadian toads, as well as those of silver-haired, hoary, northern long-eared, little brown and red bats.
In 2020, stations equipped with motion-detection cameras continued to record an abundance of wildlife species returning to reclaimed lands. Over the years, these have included coyote, black bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx, moose, fisher, mink, muskrat, white-tailed and mule deer, red fox, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, American marten, weasel, beaver and elk. Monitoring continues in order to demonstrate that reclaimed land is providing habitat for a diversity of species.
Wildlife and bird protection
Syncrude operates within a large wilderness area in northern Alberta’s boreal forest and employs a number of strategies to deter wildlife from our sites. These include our bird deterrent system, and protocols for the handling of food and food waste.
We restrict clearing activities during key periods, such as calving or nesting, and conduct wildlife sweeps as required to minimize risks to either wildlife or wildlife features. If necessary, we will relocate wildlife prior to clearing. Deterrents are also used where appropriate to discourage the presence of wildlife from industrial areas.
Through our bird protection plan, we employ industry best practices to deter birds from high risk areas such as tailings facilities. In 2020, we experienced 17 bird mortalities due to oiling. As part of our permit conditions, we are required to report wildlife sightings, as well as injured and dead wildlife on our site to the regulators. In situations where distressed wildlife is found, the animal is assessed and action is taken under the guidance of Fish and Wildlife officials from Alberta Environment and Parks.
1 Avian – Includes all bird mortalities related to oiling. Incidents are reported to Alberta Environment and Parks. An additional 38 bird mortalities were reported related to natural or unknown causes.
We recognize the development and operations of a mine have a localized impact on wildlife habitat. Wildlife monitoring helps to identify those species that may be using an area and strategies are established to mitigate the impact wherever possible. For example, at our Mildred Lake Extension (MLX) Project, we have committed to creating wildlife corridors on both sides of the MacKay River. This includes the entire width of the river valley, in addition to a 100-metre-wide buffer starting from the top of the escarpment. No mining or any industrial activity will occur in this area. The only disturbances will be at a water outfall facility and a bridge across the MacKay River. Wildlife movement for moose and other large mammals was taken into consideration in bridge design and reviewed in consultation with the nearby Fort McKay First Nation.
Wildlife monitoring and research programs occur on both active and reclaimed sites, as well as in areas surrounding our lease areas. Syncrude’s leases are located outside of prescribed Boreal Caribou recovery zones and their presence has not been detected on our sites. There are indications or observations of other species of concern, such as Canada lynx, Canada warbler and the Canadian toad.
Wildlife monitoring on reclaimed lands has already recorded the return of some species of concern, including the Canada lynx and fisher – both listed by the Alberta government as sensitive – and the short-eared owl and common nighthawk – listed as threatened and special concern respectively by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and Species at Risk Act (SARA).
Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch
In 1993, in collaboration with the neighbouring Fort McKay First Nation, Syncrude introduced wood bison to a reclaimed area to assess the capability of the landscape to support large mammals. Today, the ranch numbers around 300 head and is co-managed with the First Nation. The herd is prized for its genetic purity, winning several prizes at livestock exhibitions and fetching a premium at livestock sales. It has also contributed to a genetic preservation project led by scientists from the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Parks Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Calgary Zoo.
The bison graze on three reclaimed areas within our operation. Two are predominantly grassland, while the third incorporates more ecological characteristics – such as coniferous and deciduous trees, as well as shrubs and grasses – associated with the local boreal forest.
Wood bison grazing on land reclaimed from mining operations.
Creating the world’s largest protected boreal forest area
Syncrude recognizes the value of multi-stakeholder approaches to monitor and mitigate industry impacts on the environment and, in 2018, joined the governments of Alberta and Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Tallcree First Nation to create the world’s largest protected area of boreal forest.
Syncrude contributed $2.3 million to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which made a payment for a timber quota held by the Tallcree First Nation. This enabled the quota to be cancelled by the Government of Alberta, which then created the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park, a conservation area of 3,300 km2. This new area sits next to Wood Buffalo National Park as well as several new and existing provincial parks. Taken together, the parks form a protected boreal forest area of more than 67,000 km2, an area roughly twice as large as Vancouver Island. It protects key habitat for 68 species of conservation concern and three species at risk – wood bison, woodland caribou and the peregrine falcon.
THE PARKS FORM A PROTECTED BOREAL FOREST AREA OF MORE THAN 67,000 KM2, ROUGHLY TWICE AS LARGE AS VANCOUVER ISLAND
Syncrude’s investment provides a land disturbance offset for future mining development, such as our Mildred Lake Extension (MLX) Project, in addition to other commitments to mitigate and reduce our environmental impacts.