Studying the intersection of oil, gas and wildlife in Alberta

A unique fund helps biologists map industrial impacts on natural settings

February 01, 2011

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Strap-on transmitters, slimmed down to the size of nickels and compact video cameras at nests enable biologist Janet Ng to track ferruginous hawks which are stealth bombers among birds of prey that patrol southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, diving and dining out on small prairie mammals. More robust versions of the high technology let veterinarian Gordon Stenhouse keep up with wide-ranging grizzly bears every hour around the clock, piecing together intimate biographies of the temperamental and unapproachable giants.

Friendlier, diminutive burrowing owls nest around oil and gas wells, at times perching on steel equipment to survey their native flat grasslands. But does industrial noise – or particular volumes and frequencies of mechanical racket – contribute to the declining population of the charming birds by inhibiting reproduction? With mini-collars, sound sensors, a geographical information system and digital elevation maps, biologist Corey Scobie seeks answers to guide acoustical engineering additions to hardware designs.

Kim Dawe uses aerial surveys to trace the proliferation of white-tailed deer that have spread as far north as Fort Good Hope near the Arctic Circle, documenting effects of global climate change and artifacts such as roads, rights-of-way and production sites that favor the animals’ increase. With remote cameras, biologist Jesse Tigner keeps tabs on elusive martens. The sensitive predators’ success or decline is a barometer of effects on wildlife of seismic exploration lines cut into the woods, and a guide to making rules for industrial expansion ever farther into the boreal forest.

Journey Paulus, who doubles as a biologist and lawyer, focuses on the translation of natural science into regulatory standards under legislation such as the national Species at Risk Act. “We’re going to see a lot more critical habitat on the landscape,” she says, forecasting numerous identifications of sensitive places and restrictions as liable to emerge soon from current technical reviews.

Botanists Jane Lancaster and Marilyn Neville keep score on successes and shortcomings of pioneer efforts at grassland reclamation after the 1995 construction of Express Pipeline for exports of Alberta heavy oil and bitumen to the United States. On a larger scale, Jay Woosaree reviews uses of 18 native grass varieties that he has helped to make into seed growers’ products for industrial land reclamation projects in a quarter-century as a specialist with Alberta Innovates (formerly the Alberta Research Council).

When the experts meet periodically to talk about their projects and results, the event is anything but yet another protest dedicated to trashing the environmental reputations of Alberta industry and government in the name of science. The location is the Calgary Petroleum Club. The room is studded with business representatives and consultants. The host is the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), a non-profit coalition of 215 companies and agencies.

The session is a progress report on a long-range scientific support program that nurtures environmental knowledge and improved research tools: the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund (AUPRF). The money comes from a voluntary levy on oil and gas wells. The innovation agenda is supervised by a steering committee drawn from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.

Far from resisting research into the effects of seismic surveys, wells, access roads and pipelines, Stenhouse describes industry as co-operative and genuinely interested in obtaining guidance on reducing or compensating for environmental damage. “No company wants to be known for causing the demise of a species. Companies say, ‘If there’s something we’re doing wrong, tell us.’”

As a 12-year-old continuing inquiry that has inspired designation of a North American icon as a threatened species, the grizzly bear project by Stenhouse and the Hinton-based Foothills Research Institute stands out as the most famous Alberta research on the environmental impact of industry. AUPRF is one of 77 industry, government and academic supporters.

A sideline in technology innovation grows naturally out of the work, Stenhouse says. In business and government alike, “Managers want to say ‘A causes B and let’s look after that.’ It’s not like that.” About the only obvious cause of bear deaths, deteriorating reproduction and population decline is “high-speed lead poisoning” – poaching by hunters who take advantage of industrial access roads to shoot animals.


“High-speed lead poisoning” remains a central threat to Alberta’s Grizzly bear population

Grizzlies are smart, subtle creatures whose responses to industrialization defy conventional images of wildlife preferences. Home ranges change for reasons that are not yet well understood, for instance. Stenhouse’s bear biographies puzzle the most knowledgeable scientists – like one that shows a grizzly relocating its beat away from industry one year only to move back into a drilling and development hot spot the next.

A genuine understanding of bear behavior requires much more than a periodic census of the animal population and inferences from the statistics. New research tools include a geographical information system that provides a detailed history of landscape conditions with snapshots taken twice a month since 2000 for the vast Alberta foothills of the Rocky Mountains from the Montana boundary north to Grande Prairie. The habitat data can be matched up with increasingly detailed records of grizzly lives.

New veterinary techniques enable the researchers to keep more frequent score on bears’ physical conditions and signs of stress without knocking them out by shooting darts full of tranquilizers into them. In laboratories, advanced instruments tell much from bits of fur that grizzlies leave behind on trees where they scratch their itches or on barbed wire fences. In the field, a new type of dart draws blood samples and falls out of the animals after its cylinder fills up.

Stenhouse’s crews are using technical innovations to solve puzzles that have potential to guide practical conservation methods, as opposed to academic guesswork. What matters the most to grizzly bears? Is the “footprint” of human activity just one factor in their fortunes? The questions arise from an outstanding success at reviving the European cousins of North American grizzlies. Since the 1930s the Swedish bear population has recovered to 3,500 from an almost extinct 125. It helped that the country enacted a two-year jail term for shooting bears. But so did improved woods husbandry, such as thinning trees to open up the forest canopy and enable more food to grow.

Marrying business and science can provide magic ingredients of success for environmental causes by turning them into profitable enterprises, shows experience on another Alberta front. Encouraging possibilities are documented by a five-year performance survey on clients of the Canadian Environmental Technology Advancement Corp. – West (CETAC), an Alberta and Saskatchewan non-profit agency created by the provincial and federal governments to focus on imbuing inventors with commercial skills.

As documented by Itracks, a Saskatoon developer of digital market research techniques, the agency helped 164 firms rooted in inventions. With CETAC business coaching, 81 per cent of the companies are still operating, 13 per cent have gone through mergers or takeovers, and only six per cent have disappeared. The startup firms created 1,100 full-time jobs and had total annual revenues of $650 million before the 2008-09 global economic crisis set the group back by about 15 per cent to $550 million. The environmental innovators raised $182 million from investors, with private equity playing the leading role.

At a Calgary fundraising event for CETAC, Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton described its marriage of commerce and technical creativity as in the best tradition of the province. In the 40 years since former premier Peter Lougheed founded the Conservative regime, the party has worked with industry on creating wealth, Morton said. He sees no reason to abandon the record as entrepreneurs and inventors turn to innovations aimed at thriving on a new green era.

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