Wolves are thriving around the Athabasca oilsands, contradicting the assumption that mining developments are keeping predators away, according to a study from the University of Alberta.
The study, led by PhD candidate Eric Neilson and published in the journal Ecosphere, found that wolves were undeterred in areas of human disturbance such as mine sites and tailings ponds.
If anything, the open spaces provide a more effective hunting ground for the wolves, Neilson said.
"It looks as though the human footprint has changed the predation rate," he said.
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The findings are not what the researchers were expecting, he added.
"We had this simple prediction that wolves might be avoiding areas near the edges of mines and near some of the camps … where there's a lot of people," Neilson said.
Bitumen extraction involves pit mines, upgraders and work camps.
"There's actually more moose per capita — per moose capita — being killed." - Eric Neilson
In 2013 and 2014, Neilson and his colleagues tracked two animals from the 10 packs of wolves in the area using collars and GPS software. They went out into the field to investigate kill sites.
"There's actually more moose per capita — per moose capita — being killed."
The increased wolf activity however was not seen near camps or upgrader sites where contact with people becomes more likely, he said.
Although the results are conclusive, the reasons behind the behaviour are not clear.
It could be that the clearings around the mines sites make it easier for wolves to move along and locate and kill prey, Neilson said.
"We speculate that there could be advantages created by the edge of mines for the wolves — edges or barriers in habitat have been used by other predators as a space against which they can increase their kill."
Because the mines the mines take up such a large part of the wolves' territory, they may be using the space more intensely, he suggested.
Nielsen said more research needs to be done on the oilsands impact on wildlife, saying the effect on moose populations is unclear.
"With any change in habitat that causes changes in animal behaviours, there are many factors to consider and much more we can learn about what is really going on here."
The study was funded through government, the university and industry. Researchers used contributions from Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) for the GPS software. COSIA is an alliance of oilsands producers focused on "accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada's oilsands" according to its website.