The Alberta oilsands may be threatening the survival of the whooping crane, which is already an endangered species in North America, according to Global Forest Watch Canada.
The environmental group says the world's only wild flock of whooping cranes flies over the oilsands as it migrates annually between breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park, located on the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, and winter grounds along the Texas coast.
In a report published online this week, Global Forest Watch Canada mapped the historical flight paths and landing points of whooping cranes in Alberta, particularly in the oilsands area.
"They generally tend to land in wetland areas, which is an automatic red flag because of the existence of the toxic tailings ponds," Peter Lee, the Edmonton-based author of the report, told CBC News.
Tailings ponds store tailings, the toxic waste byproduct of bitumen processing.
Lee said the federal and Alberta governments should think carefully about the oilsands' impacts on whooping cranes before approving any new projects.
More studies needed: official
Alberta government officials say more studies need to be done on whooping cranes' migration routes through the oilsands region.
"If there are new data points that will help us determine if perhaps there's one location that needs to be given greater attention, then we'd certainly be willing to look at what we might need to do there," said Dave Ealey, a spokesman for the province's Sustainable Resources Development Department.
The whooping crane is listed as an endangered species in Canada and the United States.
Northwest Territories MLA Bob Bromley, a bird biologist who was involved in a whooping crane recovery program, said the effects of the oilsands on whooping cranes extend far beyond tailings ponds.
The effects can also be seen "through the contaminants in the ecosystem, the water quality, the bioaccumulation in the food that the cranes eat," he said.
The flock of whooping cranes that migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park and Texas has grown by 40 per cent between 1998 and 2008, but it has only 270 birds as of 2008, according to the report.
The birds migrate north to Wood Buffalo National Park in March and April, then travel south to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas between September and November.