The Status of Biodiversity in the Oil Sands Region of Alberta Preliminary Assessment 2014

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute
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The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) measures and reports on the state of biodiversity and human footprint across the province. This report presents data on several indicators of environmental health for the Oil Sands Region (OSR) of Alberta, an aggregate of three provincially recognized oil sands administrative units:  Athabasca Oil Sands Area, Cold Lake Oil Sands Area, and Peace River Oil Sands Area.

The OSR makes up 21% of Alberta’s land area and is similar in size to the State of New York and two times larger than the province of New Brunswick. Multiple ice ages have shaped the topography of the OSR, creating a hilly landscape dotted with  numerous shallow lakes and wetlands connected by meandering streams and large rivers. This predominantly forested region is naturally regulated by disturbances like fire and insect outbreaks, which results in a patchy mixture of young and old forest across the landscape.

Some areas of the OSR are also covered by the boreal grassland transition zone  known as Aspen parkland. Aspen parkland is a mixture of Aspen and White Spruce  groves interspersed with prairie grasslands. Much of the land in the  Aspen parkland has been converted to agricultural use.

The ABMI has 350 permanent monitoring sites in the OSR. Between 2003 and 2012, we conducted field surveys at 186 of these sites. At each location, ABMI technicians recorded the species present and measured a variety of habitat characteristics. Between 1999 and 2012, the ABMI also completed a detailed assessment of human footprint for all 350 sites by surveying a 3 x 7 km area around each site using satellite imagery. Finally, a broad characterization of human footprint for the entire region was conducted through the creation of a wall-to-wall human footprint map circa 2007 and 2010 using a variety of data sources.

As of 2012, the total human footprint across the OSR was 13.8%. Covering 7.4% of the OSR, agriculture was the largest human footprint and 2.5 times larger  than forestry footprint, which covered 2.9% of the OSR. Energy footprint covered 2.2% of the OSR. 

The total area of human footprint in the OSR increased from 11.3% to 13.8% between 1999 and 2012; this represents a 20% change in human footprint over this time. More than half of this increase was driven by the creation of forestry footprint, which increased from 1.8% in 1999 to 3.1% in 2012. Energy footprint increased from 1.6% to 2.3%. Agricultural footprint remained virtually unchanged between 1999 and 2012.

Overall, 86% of the OSR has no direct human footprint, and a total of 6.2% of the OSR is managed as protected areas.

The ABMI assessed the status (current condition) of 425 species in the OSR and found the Biodiversity Intactness Index  to be, on average, 88%. Biodiversity
intactness for each species group was:
•     80% for native birds
•     91% for winter-active mammals
•     90% for armoured mites
•     88% for native vascular plants
•     91% for mosses and liverworts

Areas of active mining in the Surface Mineable Area north of Fort McMurray have biodiversity intactness values near 0%. Regional biodiversity intactness values are much higher than 0% because the active oil sands mines represent a small portion of the entire OSR. 

At present, the biggest ecological changes are associated with the higher abundance of species that thrive in areas with human development, such as the Coyote and Black-billed Magpie.