Effects of oil development on grassland birds

By Costa Maragos Posted: August 24, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Research by master’s student Jason Unruh investigated areas with oil development in southeast Saskatchewan
Research by master’s student Jason Unruh investigated areas with oil development in southeast Saskatchewan (Photo courtesy of Jason Unruh).

Grassland birds are in trouble in Saskatchewan. Jason Unruh, a Biology graduate student working on his master’s degree, is examining the link between oil development and songbird populations in native and non-native grasslands. We spoke with him about his findings.

WHAT DID YOU LOOK AT?
I looked at how birds are responding to oil wells and associated development. Specifically, I investigated whether there are more birds closer to wells than farther away from wells, and in areas with fewer or no wells compared to areas with lots of wells. I also examined whether there were more birds in native grasslands compared to non-native grasslands with oil development present.

My study was in southeastern Saskatchewan around the Weyburn, Estevan and Carlyle areas. This area has undergone rapid oil development in the last decade.

Jason Unruh - Biology Graduate Student
Jason Unruh is a master’s student in Biology (Photo courtesy of Trevor Hopkin – U of R Photography).

WHAT DID YOU FIND?
I found that overall, oil development is having negative effects on the grassland songbird community. There are fewer birds closer to wells than farther away. As well, I found fewer birds in areas with lots of wells compared to areas with few or no wells. I also found fewer birds in non-native grasslands compared to native grasslands when oil development was present.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE CAUSE OF THIS?
Oil development is not having a positive effect on grassland songbirds. Increased traffic and human activity associated with productive oil wells may be leading to fewer songbirds in these areas. Oil development may also be influencing the activity of predators and giving them an advantage in finding songbird nests. For example, roads and trails and other edges created by oil development may give predators corridors to travel through the landscape more easily and locate nests.

WHAT KINDS OF BIRDS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Several of these are listed as Species At Risk in Canada. Three of these species are Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow and Chestnut-Collared Longspur. This means that these species already have extremely low populations and are at risk of disappearing.  Oil development in grassland habitat is one more layer of pressure on these birds that already have stressed populations.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS HERE?
These birds are indicators of the health of our grasslands in Saskatchewan. The fact that these birds are in decline is an indication that our remaining grasslands are unhealthy and oil development is contributing to the further degradation of grassland habitat.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL HAPPEN WITH YOUR FINDINGS?
I hope that this will change some of the ways we develop oil on the prairies. To minimize the effects of oil development, I recommend we limit oil well density. We must be more strategic in where we place wells and always take into account the effects such developments have on vulnerable bird populations and our remaining native grasslands.

Unruh’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment (Fish and Wildlife Development Fund), Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service), Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Regina, Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, and the U of R.

He has been working under the supervision of Dr. Mark Brigham, Professor of Biology and Dr. Stephen Davis, Wildlife Biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Unruh says his findings will be published in an academic journal.