Alberta government knew bighorn sheep contaminated with coal-mine selenium: scientist

Some herds of Alberta's provincial animal are heavily contaminated with selenium from old coal mines, says research from a retired senior government biologist.

Jeff Kneteman says Alberta Environment hasn't commissioned any studies

Some Alberta herds of bighorn sheep are contaminated with a naturally occurring element that can be toxic in high doses, says a recently retired government scientist. (Shutterstock)

Some herds of bighorn sheep, Alberta's provincial animal, are heavily contaminated with selenium from old coal mines, says research from a retired senior government biologist.

Jeff Kneteman said Alberta Environment has known about the problem for years. But it has yet to commission any studies about the effects on the three herds and how far the contamination has spread through the local ecosystem.

"There was no interest," said Kneteman, who left government in March 2020. "Why wasn't any of this stuff ever followed up?"

The research comes to light as the United Conservative government tries to persuade Albertans that its regulatory and monitoring systems are capable of ensuring a safe expansion of coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains.

An Alberta Environment spokesperson said the government is aware of the issue.

"Alberta Environment and Parks has engaged with researchers and mining companies and their consultants in the [area] regarding selenium levels in bighorn sheep," John Muir said in an email.

Research was for a master's degree

Kneteman's work dates from 2015. It was his thesis for a master's degree and not provincially funded.

He was investigating selenium, a naturally occurring element associated with coal mines that is healthy in small doses but toxic in excess.

His study looked at what levels of selenium were normal for animals, including bighorns, deer, elk and caribou, by considering 85 herds from across North America.

Two herds in northwest Alberta stood out — those on the sites of the Smoky River, Gregg River and Luscar coal mines.

Both herds averaged well outside the safe range for selenium. One of them almost doubled that level.

"They're getting it from the coal mines," Kneteman said. "We found no evidence of elevated selenium in Alberta in any of the other populations that we sampled."

The Rockies are naturally low in selenium. As well, when bighorns from one of the coal-affected herds were transferred to Nevada, their selenium levels dropped to normal within a year.

Muir said a consultant found selenium levels to be high but below those that would produce toxic effects.

Selenium is known to damage reproduction. "The sheep on the mines have the lowest reproductive potential and reproductive output that we've ever measured in Canada," Kneteman said.

The province's 2015 draft management plan for bighorns found that the ratio of lambs to ewes was lower at coal mines than native range every year from 2008 to 2013.

Referring to unpublished government data, the plan says: "High selenium levels in blood samples from bighorns feeding in reclamation areas associated with a coal-mine site ... are of concern to sheep managers.

"No examination of possible population effects attributed exclusively to selenium toxicity has been undertaken to date."

Research suggests selenium is widespread in the ecosystem in question. Kneteman previously found elevated levels in dippers, small birds that feed on aquatic insects. Other studies have found excessive selenium in at least three area waterways.

"[Selenium] is throughout the system," Kneteman said.

'Why would we expect it to have changed?'

Although his data is years old, there's little reason to believe things have improved, he said.

"The assumption could be made it's the same today as it was in 2015. Why would we expect it to have changed?"

The province's 2019 five-year monitoring plan mothballed all the area's water-monitoring stations.

Since last spring, Alberta has sold tens of thousands of hectares of exploration leases for new coal mines along the summits and eastern slopes of the Rockies.

In response to public concern, Energy Minister Sonya Savage has paused all work on the most sensitive landscapes, stopped further lease sales and struck a panel to hear concerns from Albertans.

She has asked Albertans to have faith in the province's regulatory agency and monitoring programs and has referred to Alberta Environment's "stringent environmental protections."