An Ecological Framework for Wildlife Habitat Design for Oil Sands Mine Reclamation

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  • Oil sands companies are required to reclaim the land that has been disturbed during their operations to self-sustaining, locally common boreal forest. An important facet of the reclaimed landscape is support of locally-relevant wildlife communities. Wildlife communities are an important part of the biodiversity of the post-mining landscape, and are crucial elements of the traditional landscape for First Nations and other users of the land. The current philosophy of “Build it and they will come” (the Field of Dreams hypothesis) should be replaced by applying wildlife and landscape ecology principles to mine reclamation, to effectively achieve wildlife habitat and other end land-use goals. A new ecological framework for wildlife reclamation that fits with operational practices is needed. Here we provide this framework, and outline some of the first steps toward a research and demonstration program that will improve success in wildlife reclamation in the mineable oil sands region. Because natural systems are so complex, we do not have the ability to fully understand the intricacies of wildlife habitat and communities, or their interactions with each other and their environment. However, we can adopt natural analogs, using reference conditions and the range of natural variation, to guide our reclamation designs. For example, diversity in boreal forest habitat is largely driven by wildfire cycles. We can emulate the effects of natural disturbances such as wildfire by designing a mosaic of interconnected patches with a diversity of sizes and shapes on the reclaimed landscape, adding in artificial snags as surrogates for structures that would naturally remain after fire, etc. By emulating natural systems, we are more likely to impart ecological form and function to the systems we design and build. Such wildlife design for oil sands mine reclamation needs to be done with explicit consideration of spatial and temporal scales: • Spatial – includes region, lease/landscape, landform, patch, and microsite. These scales are readily incorporated into normal mine planning frameworks which roughly align with these scales. • Temporal – project phases include planning, design and implementation; forest stand development stages include initiation, establishment, organization, maturity, and old growth. Considerations of temporal scale provide the opportunity for adjustments to vegetation and wildlife enhancements on the reclaimed landscape over time. Designing for connectivity is a key spatial feature of the new framework. The need has been long recognized but little guidance is available. Some methods are recommended here for addressing this need. Connectivity may be designed using a number of methods, including habitat corridors and stepping stones. The temporal aspects of reclamation are as important, though less developed here. It is recognized that revegetation of a site is not a one-time activity, but that there are opportunities to stage the revegetation for better emulation of natural systems, allowing better creation of midstory and understory over the first decades of mine reclamation. This mimics natural processes in which vegetation communities change over time since disturbance, with accompanying changes in faunal communities as sites age. We recommend formal active adaptive management, where sites will be monitored and vegetation and wildlife habitat elements will be adjusted over time based on performance data. As part of this approach, clear goals must be set at the closure planning levels; these goals must be measurable and defensible. Wildlife habitat creation goals in particular are needed. In moving to a new paradigm for reclaiming for wildlife habitat, we need to avoid the lure of designing for specific species and instead focus at the community level. Much of this can be accomplished through use of planting to ecosite in a more thoughtful and interconnected way. We provide a useful method for communicating reclamation guidance: design and element sheets. Each sheet is focused on a particular aspect of wildlife reclamation, such as habitat patch size and shape or how to prepare, distribute and install artificial snags. Approximately 40 to 60 sheets are proposed and drafts of the first two are supplied here. These sheets are aimed at designers (design sheets) and field practitioners (element sheets), and contain guidance supported by ecological data and extensive references. The first iteration of the wildlife habitat reclamation framework is offered here, but we acknowledge that there is considerable work needed to refine it, update it with new research, and populate the design sheets over time. Research and demonstration projects would address some of the most pressing data gaps and assist in technology transfer to oil sands operators and reclamation practitioners.

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    Attribution 3.0 International