A vision for former mine sites

bison oil sands wildlife

Guest blog from: Syncrude Canada Ltd. 

A first time visitor to Syncrude’s oil sands operations in Northern Alberta might be surprised to see a herd of wood bison casually grazing on field grasses on the site, but they are symbolic of the company’s promise to provide a sustainable ecosystem for future generations long after its operations have ended. 

Where once there was a large open pit mine, the wood bison now call it home. As more reclamation research programs evolve, Syncrude is creating an exciting future for its former mine sites. 

Even before production began in 1978, Syncrude understood the scale and impact its operations would have on the existing landscape. Reclamation research programs are in place to achieve the company’s long-term vision to create a landscape equal to that which existed prior to disturbance, supporting a healthy diversity of plants and animals, and sustaining a range of land uses. 

Significant progress has been made over the last 50 years with about 4,400 hectares of former mine sites either reclaimed or prepared for re-vegetation activities, and more than 11 million tree and shrub seedlings planted throughout reclaimed areas. The oldest reclaimed area was planted in 1983.

Recognizing the important role wetlands play in the sustainability of forests in Northern Alberta, Syncrude launched the Sandhill Fen Watershed Research Project in 2008 to learn how to design and incorporate peat-forming wetlands into operational scale-reclamation. The Sandhill Fen is the largest reclaimed wetland in the oil sands and the first ever landform constructed on a foundation of oil sands tailings – a byproduct of the oil sands extraction process. 

After seven growing seasons the Sandhill Fen Watershed is thriving, attracting wildlife and providing valuable information for the future. 

While the wood bison are a permanent fixture on the Syncrude landscape, their presence started as a research project to assess the ability of reclaimed landscapes to support forage crops for large animals. Once native to the Wood Buffalo region and culturally significant to Indigenous people, the wood bison are a threatened species. Syncrude approached Elk Island National Park to participate in the Wood Bison Recovery Program, run by the Canadian Wildlife Service. 

In 1993, 30 wood bison were released onto reclaimed land. Now, 300 healthy wood bison graze on 300 hectares of land reclaimed from oil sands open pit mining at the Beaver Creek Bison Ranch, which is managed in partnership with the Fort McKay First Nation.

While the herd population is kept stable through sales as breeding stock for other bison operations, it has received conservation herd certification status and has contributed to a genetic preservation project led by scientists from the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Parks Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Calgary Zoo. 

Environmental research has created new uses for Syncrude’s former mine sites including a home for wood bison to return. There truly is an exciting future in store for the region.