Oil sands development disrupts wildlife health

In northeastern Alberta, near the oil industry, researchers report lower reproductive rates, modified sex organs and the presence of rat poison in many of the specimens tested.

Pekan, marten, muskrat, river otter, specimens accumulate in the laboratory of Philippe Thomas, wildlife biologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Fur animals are sentinels to assess the impact of pollutants.

In total, nearly 2000 animals were analyzed under the Canada-Alberta Joint Monitoring Program for the Environment in Oil Sands Areas, which began in 2012.

There are often impacts that are related to the reproduction of the animal. The effects on animal populations are felt.

 Philippe Thomas

Biologist Philippe Thomas regularly resides in Aboriginal communities in northeastern Alberta to document the effect of pollutants.

In consultation with the First Nations, he chooses the sites to be sampled.

The animals are dissected on the spot. Organ samples such as the brain, liver, kidneys, muscles and reproductive organs are then sent to the National Wildlife Research Center in Ottawa.

Throughout the analysis, Philippe Thomas discovered significant changes affecting the river otter. In the male, the baculum, or penile bone, is more fragile and less dense near the oil sands, which means it breaks more easily.

“It has been determined that near the oil industry, otter penis bones are in poorer health,” says the researcher.

Otters stressed

The hormonal profile of animals is also abnormal in both males and females. In the laboratory, Philippe Thomas measures the impact of these disturbances on the reproduction rate of otters by harvesting blastocysts produced at the early stage of embryonic development.

The results are clear: near the oil sands, otters are more stressed, have higher levels of cortisol, and reproduce less well.

It’s hard to find the exact source. But we start to detect correlations with the presence of pollutants associated with the oil industry.

 Philippe Thomas

In the course of his research, Philippe Thomas also discovered rat poison in fur carcasses, in connection with the use of rodenticides to limit the presence of rodents in worker camps and on industrial sites. He sensitized the industry, which worked together to put in place alternatives.

At the heart of the community

Dialogue with Aboriginal partners living near the oil sands is at the heart of the monitoring program. For example, it was through dialogue with trappers that Philippe Thomas made his discovery about the impact of rat poison.

Trappers were worried about the changes they were seeing in the fishermen and martens. The animals were leaner, their fur less beautiful, and they were bleeding more.

 Philippe Thomas

Indigenous knowledge allows Philippe Thomas to better target the problems to be studied. The biologist takes advantage of his stays on the spot to discuss with the community and share his results.

With colleagues from McMaster University, Philippe Thomas has just raised $ 1.5 million to study mink health in the Peace Delta and the Athabasca River. A colony of mink is being built in the Aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan, which will play a central role in the project.

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