Fracking presents risks to wildlife: expert

Oil and gas development in the Yukon could be particularly risky for caribou herds, Yukon's legislative committee on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing heard this week.

Oil and gas development in the Yukon could be particularly risky for caribou herds, Yukon’s legislative committee on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing heard this week.

Donald Reid, a Whitehorse-based biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada, presented to the committee on Wednesday.

The cumulative effects of industrial development on wildlife populations are very hard to predict, said Reid.

But the caribou populations of the boreal forest from the east side of the Rockies to the east coast are well studied, and offer lessons that can be applied here.

Disturbances from oil and gas developments, such as roads and seismic lines cut through the landscape, decrease the amount of caribou habitat and also decrease its quality, Reid said.

But perhaps surprisingly, some species do better in disturbed environments, including deer and moose.

With lots of prey around, wolves do well. Wolves also benefit from the sight lines provided by roads and cut lines, because they make hunting easier.

All of these factors work together to decrease caribou populations, who are pushed out by deer and moose and preyed upon by wolves.

For boreal caribou, “the net effect of that on caribou has been a declining caribou population in most of the herds that have a heavy level of disturbance,” said Reid.

“Some populations of caribou have disappeared as a result of this. Many are on the cusp, which is why there has been so much controversy in northern Alberta, and which is why the six populations of boreal caribou in northeast British Columbia, in the Peace River country, are currently on the decline and considered at real risk of extirpation.”

Darius Elias, committee member and MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin, asked Reid if the thresholds set out in the North Yukon Regional Land Use Plan might be the appropriate measure to ensure that caribou habitat is not disturbed to an unacceptable level.

Reid responded that having disturbance thresholds is the right idea, but that we have no way of knowing what the appropriate thresholds would be in the Yukon. That’s because the caribou populations here interact with the landscape in a different way from those in the boreal forest.

There are other potential risks to wildlife that could result from large-scale oil and gas development in the Yukon, said Reid.

One risk is the amount of water taken from local lakes, rivers and streams.

With low-flow levels in the winter months, “we run a risk of over-winter habitat loss for invertebrates and fish populations if we’re not very careful,” he said.

Another risk is air pollution from toxic gases released from underground, or evaporated from fracking fluids, said Reid.

Of particular concern are ozone and hydrogen sulfide, because they are heavier than air and can pool in valleys, he said.

“The sinking and accumulation of these gases in certain circumstances could be lethal.”

These risks can be mitigated with appropriate management and regulations, said Reid.

But there is one area of risk that we simply do not know enough about to mitigate confidently, he said.

That is the potential for fracking fluids left underground in wells to migrate into surface waters.

He pointed to a recent Council of Canadian Academies report that found that potential migration pathways are real and probably have been underestimated.

“Many of the claims of industry have probably been over the top with regard to this water pollution issue and what happens to the water underground,” said Reid.

“Our real dearth of knowledge on how fracturing fluid water works underground in different geologies and with different aquifer and groundwater situations is really creating a huge problem for us, I think, in terms of being able to quantify risk, understand exactly where the risk is coming from, and therefore have any idea about how to regulate it or even monitor it.”

Because we know so little, the lesson is to go slow, and closely monitor effects on ecologies and wildlife, said Reid.

“We need to think about anything we do on the land base as an experiment, not as something that we are walking into with the hubris of knowing exactly what’s going to happen,” he said.

“Unless we learn from anything we do, we are going to be making big mistakes.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon youth being extorted online Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read