Alberta First Nation fears for bison herd if mega oilsands mine opens

An Alberta First Nation is worried a proposed oilsands mine will doom the Ronald Lake bison herd.

Frontier mine is expected to be one of the largest open pit mines in oilsands

Some members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are worried a new oilsands development could harm bison between Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan. (Rob Berlanger)

Dene elder Roy Ladouceur's voice grows quiet as his eyes settle on a cellphone photo of a bison slaughtered by poachers.

The animal from the Ronald Lake herd, which grazes in the boreal forest between Fort McMurray and the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan, has been decapitated, its body left to waste away in blood-splattered snow.

"Why would they kill something that large and just throw the meat away?" Ladouceur said. "I mean, that's disrespect to wildlife, let alone the land."

Roy Ladouceur sits inside his cabin at Poplar Point and looks at a photo of a slaughtered bison. (David Thurton/CBC)

Ladouceur is passionate about the land and its bison. The 64-year-old is the only member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to live off the land year-round.

He calls himself the "guardian of the bison."

The herd he loves is special: unlike others in Alberta, it's disease-free — but its numbers are declining as a result of poaching and, Ladouceur said, oilsands developments. Environment Canada said the herd's numbers have dropped from an estimated 200 bison to 100.

But now, Ladouceur worries those numbers could drop faster than ever before.

He said he's concerned a mega oilsands mine planned for the southern edge of the bison's habitat could doom the herd.

Mine the size of a city

This map shows the location of the Ronald Lake Bison Reserve in relation to the Teck Resources mine. (CBC News Graphics)

The Frontier mine is expected to be one of the largest oilsands open pits ever built. At 292 square kilometres, its footprint is expected to cover an area almost half the size of Edmonton.

"This is the only place that has not been touched yet," Ladouceur said. "You mean to tell me, they are that greedy for power and money to go and damage the environment here?"

The mine's proponent, Teck Resources, is undergoing a federal environmental review. Company officials declined an interview request. But in a statement, Teck said it is committed to advancing the mine in a way that respects Indigenous people and the environment.

Roy Ladouceur looks for signs of bison on March 8. (David Thurton/ CBC)

CBC News accompanied Ladouceur and another Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation band member on a field visit to see the herd.

Ladouceur led a convoy of snowmobiles to the herd from his cabin at Poplar Point, reserve land that sits halfway between Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan.

Riding side-saddle on his Yamaha over dunes of snow, Ladouceur pointed out bison tracks leading into willow patches and forest. No bison were seen during the day-long 56-kilometre trek.

Band member Lisa Tssessaze said sightings of hoof prints and piles of scat offered little assurance that the herd is thriving.

"I understand why they are so skittish. They have been so over-harvested in the last six years," said Tssessaze, director of the band's industry relations corporation.

"I think [the poaching is happening] deliberately because of the oilsands and the exploration. They want them out of the way so they can dig up the oil."

Lisa Tessasseze from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation searches for the Ronald Lake Bison herd on March 9. (David Thurton/CBC)

The statement Teck Resources provided to CBC News did not specifically address whether its exploration and research inside the bison habitat has spooked or harmed the population.

But it did say the company has been engaging with Indigenous communities for more than a decade and has advocated with First Nations for listing the herd under the Wildlife Act, which reduces hunting pressure.

Federal government has concerns

Despite the company's conservation efforts, Environment and Climate Change Canada said the government is worried about the health of the herd if the oilsands mine is approved.

Government wildlife biologist Greg Wilson said there are concerns about how the animals will react to noise and light pollution.

"Given that [the mine] overlaps with part of the range for the Ronald Lake herd, it will certainly be a loss of habitat," Wilson said.

Development in the area might also make it easier for cougars, wolves and bears to prey on the bison.

Traditional hunting practices threatened

Concerns about how the mine will affect other animals in the region have also been raised.

While snowmobiling to Poplar Point from the Fort Chipewyan winter road, band member Russel Voyageur shot a moose just after dinner time.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation band member Russel Voyageur harvests a moose at Poplar Point on March 8. (David Thurton/ CBC)

A couple of hours later, he returned with his fiancée and other volunteers to help cut up the animal lying in the bush.

In waist-deep snow and under flashlights and an uncountable sea of stars, Voyageur cut up the moose. Steam rose into the night as he placed its organs on the snow.

"If they are going to be building an [oilsands] plant, I will lose out on opportunities like this of basically getting a moose, bringing it home and feeding people," Voyageur said of the traditional land-use practice.

'Going to be a tough sell'

Elder Pat Marcel believes Teck's mine will harm the bison herd, but the band's lead negotiator said there's no stopping it.

He said past environmental reviews have shown that oilsands companies in Alberta usually win when it comes to environmental assessments.

And so, Marcel said, his First Nation is better off getting the best deal with the companies and working together to develop a management plan that best protects the herd.

"I am being pulled in very much two ways," Marcel said. "For the elders, it is going to be a tough sell."

Ladouceur could be one of the elders who won't be swayed. He's adamant he will do whatever he can to stop the approval and construction of the mine.

"I don't care what the cost and what the price tag is going to be," Ladouceur said.

"These animals were always here for the Dene people. There's a time and point where somebody is going to take a stand."

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.