Last Saturday’s edition of the Opelika-Auburn News contained an article about the decline in the rusty blackbird population, down by 90 percent since the 1960s.

The article was based on research conducted by three Auburn university graduate students under the direction of Dr. Geoff Hill. The researchers believe the decline is the result of drying up of their habitats due to climate change. The birds breed in boreal wetlands from the extreme northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada westward across Canada to and including central Alaska. They overwinter primarily in wooded wetlands of the southeastern U.S.

The article didn’t mention another possible cause for the decline, destruction of vast tracts of boreal forests in Alberta, associated with open pit mining of tar sands and the resultant massive toxic tailing ponds, chemical belching smokestacks, and processing plants stretching for hundreds of square miles of what was once pristine wilderness. The Dec.-Jan. 2012 issue of National Wildlife contains an article, ‘Tar Sands Trouble,’ written by Daniel Glick, describing some of the adverse impacts the tar sands industry is having on wildlife.

He points out that the far northern boreal forests provide breeding habitat for millions of North American birds, including migratory songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds, and that a single square mile of boreal forest can support 500 pairs of nesting migrants. He states that the toxic tailing ponds have killed thousands of the birds, particularly waterfowl that spend the winter in the United States. He doesn’t mention rusty blackbirds, but almost certainly they would be affected.

He contends that if tar sands mining continues apace, industrial development eventually will encompass an area of boreal forests and wetlands the size of Florida.

He cites an article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology linking the yearly deaths of 458-5,029 birds of at least 43 species to the toxins in the tailing ponds, and that the scientists state their own estimate “represents an unknown fraction of true mortality.” Also cited is a 2009 report from the Boreal Songbird Initiative stating that the threats posed by tar sands exploitation will result in the loss of between six million and 166 million birds during the next 30 to 50 years.

Birds are not the only animals suffering from the tar sands industry. Woodland caribou have reportedly been severely affected, and between 2000 and 2008, scores of black bears, deer, red foxes, coyotes, moose, muskrats, beavers, voles, martens, wolves, and bats have perished in the vicinity of the tar sands operations.

I suggest that Dr. Hill and his students consider the possibility that the tar sands operations are affecting rusty blackbirds.

Related to the exploitation of Canadian tar sands is a report, “Key Facts on Keystone XL” based on information provided by Oil Change International, Corporate Ethics International, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and John Stansbury, Ph.D., P.E. Keystone XL, the 1,700 mile pipeline proposed by TransCanada, would transport 830,000 barrels of liquid bitumen, a tar sands product, per day, from Alberta Canada to the Texas coast. Following are some abbreviated excerpts from the report.

Keystone XL is an export pipeline. Gulf Coast refiners plan to refine the cheap Canadian crude supplied by the pipeline into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America. Much of the fuel produced will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.

By draining Midwestern refineries of the Canadian crude into export-oriented refineries on the Gulf Coast, Keystone XL will increase the cost of gas to Americans. TransCanada’s 2008 permit application states, “Existing markets for Canadian crude…are currently oversupplied resulting in price discounting… Access to the Gulf Coast via Keystone XL is expected to strengthen Canadian crude pricing in the Midwest by removing this oversupply.” “Independent analysis…found this would increase per-gallon prices by 20 cent in the Midwest.” U.S. farmers’ fuel expense would rise from a total of $12.4 billion in 2009 to $15 million or higher in 2012 or 2013 if the pipeline is constructed. Potential threats to the environment are not adequately addressed. TransCanada predicted that its other pipeline, Keystone I, would spill once in every seven years, when, in fact, there have been 12 spills in the first year of its operation. Other threats have likewise been understated or ignored.

Extraction and refinement of the tar sands crude produce significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude. The State Department’s Environmental Statement states that annual emissions resulting from the pipeline could range from an additional 12 to 23 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (roughly the amount emitted annually from two to four coal-fired power plants), an amount EPA contends is underestimated by 20 percent.

I sent copies of the report to Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, and one to our congressman, Rep. Mike Rogers, who favors approval of Keystone XL.


Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also co-chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.