Wildlife Habitat Reclamation Workshop Summary Report

Chris Powter
Brian Eaton
Gord McKenna
Jason Fisher
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On March 3, 2016 Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) held a Workshop on Reclamation Planning for Wildlife Habitat on Oil Sands Mines. The goal of the Workshop was to review the current context for wildlife habitat reclamation planning, identify and discuss alternative approaches, and explore the objectives, location(s) and funding options for potential demonstration trials of alternative approaches.  Nineteen government, industry, consultants and researchers attended the Workshop.

Workshop participants agreed there would be merit in asking people who were not able to attend the Workshop if they had additional observations to share.  AITF sent out a survey on March 11 to over 60 individuals inviting them to provide answers to three over-arching questions related to wildlife habitat reclamation and encouraging them to share the survey with their colleagues – 21 responses were received.

It is clear that wildlife are an important feature of a reclaimed landscape, particularly in an area such as the oil sands where traditional land uses include hunting and trapping. Wildlife species are an integral component of many activities that help define an Aboriginal community’s cultural values. Wildlife species are important as a food source but also as part of the traditional economy (e.g., furbearer pelts). At the same time, expectation has been created through approvals and company EIA’s, that at the end of reclamation there will be wildlife habitat and wildlife … that the landscape will not just be capable of supporting wildlife but that the desired animals will actually be present. Therefore we need to ensure wildlife habitat is created through reclamation that will be colonized by, and support, desired species.

Existing regulatory processes (environmental impact assessments (EIAs), approvals, pre-disturbance assessments (PDAs)) require considerable information on wildlife habitat and wildlife species metrics. Models are used to extrapolate the extent and viability of pre-disturbance wildlife communities, the impacts of resource development, and the effects of reclamation as a mitigation strategy. However, in reviews of EIAs these models and their underlying data and assumptions are often the subject of considerable comment and skepticism from regulators and the public.

A key observation emerging from the Workshop is that we still have no clear understanding of the regulatory end objective for wildlife habitat reclamation, even after almost 50 years of development and reclamation. In particular, we need to know if the goal is capability (wildlife habitat) or productivity (wildlife). Once the goal is understood the tools required to achieve the goal and assess success can be developed – in particular, development of Best Management Practices, expected trajectories for reclaimed land development (and its attendant ability to support wildlife), monitoring tools to evaluate success, adaptive management practices to realign sites with the desired trajectory, and certification requirements.

Workshop participants noted that considerable work has gone into baseline data collection and that there are many hectares of reclaimed land where wildlife have been observed (though their level of use of those reclaimed habitats has rarely been quantified).  There was a sense that increased awareness of


this information would significantly enhance wildlife habitat reclamation success – recommendations included: establishing a mechanism to share successes and failures, and developing a public data portal to facilitate a better understanding of regional wildlife habitat reclamation plans and status. There was strong interest in developing a community of practice on advancing wildlife habitat reclamation.

Workshop participants identified 11 immediate actions that could be initiated as a start to enhancing wildlife habitat reclamation success and four longer term actions.

Actions that are high priority and tractable in the short term:


      • We should begin to develop fact sheets suitable for operator use (construction).
      • We should explore ways to empower people on the ground doing the reclamation work: promote the idea that operators have a creative licence to do things that are not exactly to the construction drawings, and that this is permissible even if it costs a bit more money or takes more time – expecting that these costs will drop with experience.
      • We should, wherever possible, modify construction specs and compensation for equipment operators and tree planters to encourage emulation of more natural types of habitat

(e.g., greater diversity in attributes from soil placement and landform to how trees and other species are planted).

      • We should share successes (and failures) of these modified contract specifications in enhancing the success of reclamation at local to regional scales.
      • We need to develop good succession trajectories for different reclamation techniques and track as many sites as possible against these trajectories to build a solid database. We need to associate wildlife species presence and use with the stages of each trajectory.
      • We need good wildlife habitat-based vegetation planting guidelines.
      • We need to ensure that suitable quantities and types of vegetation propagules are available for planting, particularly for wetland species. We should explore enhancing capacity for seed collection.
      • The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) needs to ban grass as a reclamation cover, and instead encourage use of pioneer species (e.g., nitrogen fixers) to promote soil development rather than immediately planting secondary successional species.
      • We need to enhance data availability. As a start, data collected under Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) approvals are public and should be added to the Oil Sands Information Portal (OSIP)1. In the longer term, efforts should be made to make other industry/consultant data available and to require submission of the data underlying EIA reports.
      • Government should take on the role of setting standards for data collection and format to ensure consistency and remove competitive obstacles.





1 See http://osip.alberta.ca/map/


      • We need to make all closure plans available on-line in a GIS-type format, both for individual sites and for the region as a whole.


Actions that require better definition or are not achievable in the short term:

      • Need documentation of historical reclamation prescriptions for soil mixes, depth, fertilizer applications, etc.  The data will be important when assessing reclamation efficacy.
      • Need to collect data for tailings Dedicated Disposal Areas – e.g., how deep the pit was before the tailings went in, what types of tailings went in and when, etc. May help understand things like salinity in an area.
      • While we want people to publish in peer reviewed journals to enhance the credibility of work, we don’t want to withhold data access for one or two years while the journal process is underway. We need to find some mechanism to share the data without impacting the ability to publish (Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, 2013). Perhaps aggregating data under the umbrella of an organization like Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) or Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) would allow for both goals to be achieved.
      • We need to find better ways to access and share Traditional Ecological Knowledge.


In the follow-up survey, seventeen people indicated an interest in participating in a community of practice to help improve wildlife habitat reclamation.