Dung beetles reveal heaps of research discoveries in bison pasture
Research continues year-round to constantly monitor and assess Syncrude’s reclamation and environmental initiatives, including the bison herd co-managed with the Fort McKay First Nation. When a species of dung beetle was found on a reclaimed pasture area, researchers took notice. One of those was Canada’s leading expert in bison and bison habitats, Wes Olson.
“I searched the literature and could find no evidence that anyone else had ever seen that specific dung beetle, Aphodius fimetarius, in this part of the province,” says the 40-year conservation and wildlife management expert. “Their presence in bison dung indicates the reclaimed ecosystem is working at a very complex level.”
Wes has worked with bison throughout North America for more than three decades. During his time with Parks Canada, he provided expertise to Syncrude while still managing the herds at Elk Island National Park, from where the original herd was sourced.
“In the early 1990s Syncrude approached Elk Island to see if they could participate in the Wood Bison Recovery Program, run by the Canadian Wildlife Service,” he explains. “This led to the first shipment of wood bison to establish the herd in 1993. We shipped wood bison to Syncrude several times after that and this allowed me to stay in touch with the herd managers.”
As a result of the dung beetle findings, Syncrude launched an insect biodiversity investigation in spring 2015 to learn more about the insects occupying the company’s reclaimed areas with and without bison.
“The project has expanded from looking at dung beetles to include every insect species that we catch. It was incredible to see how many other species of insect life was present in the samples,” says Brad Ramstead, supervisor of the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch. “Dung beetles contribute greatly to the health of the soils by recycling the nutrients found in bison dung. The volume and diversity from just one week of findings provided a diverse and abundant collection. It shows us the reclamation is maturing and there is a lot left to discover.”
There are many reasons to try and better understand the behaviour of insects on the bison pastures. In the spring, large amounts of robins were seen hopping around hunting for insects on the ground – a time when insects are typically sparse.
“Areas like these pastures are referred to as stop-over sites; places that are rich in forage resources for insectivorous birds,” says Wes. “These sites are critical for many of these birds because they need to regain the weight they have lost during migration. As many as 80 per cent of the birds that breed in the boreal forest are insectivores and are entirely dependent upon being able to find enough insects to survive and reproduce.”
Known in the scientific world as a keystone species, the bison have a huge effect on the environment around them.
“The research Wes leads helps us understand how bison interact on the reclaimed land, along with any relationships they form with animals and invertebrates,” says Syncrude field services coordinator Sylvia Skinner.
Although it is early in the dung beetle study, the evidence suggests larger environmental diversity than originally thought. Preliminary results found five species of dung beetles on the study site, one of which has never been recorded in Canada. This is the farthest north any of the five species have been recorded throughout North America.
“As I begin to develop a clearer picture of which insects live in each habitat, a much richer and more complex story is going to evolve,” adds Wes. “My challenge now is to identify each of these species and how they relate to each other, the environment they live in, and the food webs around them.”
Willow research provides insights on lake reclamation
Along the water’s edge of Syncrude’s Base Mine Lake, willows are the newest member of the plant community.
It started four years ago with a conversation between Richard Krygier from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Syncrude’s Research and Development team. Wanting to understand the salt tolerance of willows, plants native to the boreal forest, and Syncrude having naturally occurring salt on its site, the partnership began.
“I worked on willows for biomass production and wastewater treatment and approached Syncrude for process water,” says Richard. “They thought it would be interesting if we could find willows that were tolerant to the water to help with the stabilization of the shoreline of Base Mine Lake.”
Syncrude is located in an area that was once part of a prehistoric sea, leaving the area with naturally occurring salt in the soil. Water used through its processes also picks up salt while it’s being recycled.
“In scientific literature there are variations in tolerance to environmental effects – whether it be frost, or in our case, salt in the water and soil,” explains Craig Farnden, Syncrude research scientist. “Richard and his team tested willows from our site in the lab and identified which had the highest salt tolerance.”
Beginning with two greenhouse trials in 2011, 85 varieties of willow were tested. These included willows collected at and around the Syncrude operation, from other locations in Alberta and from NRCan’s bioenergy program. Based on the promising results, a field trial took place the next year, and 15 local and Alberta willow varieties were planted on the shores of Base Mine Lake in 2014.
“We’ve found individual plants that are more tolerant to process-affected and high salinity water,” says Richard. “They can grow and handle the chemistry of that water.”
Willows establish early after a disturbance and have thick, fibrous roots. They hold soil particles together and keep them from washing away. Because they grow fast, they gain control of the site.
“Willows are one of the first to produce pollen in the spring and a lot of pollinating insects like the plants because nothing else is flowering besides the willows,” explains Richard. “The other plus is because they grow fast, willows produce a lot of leaves. When the leaves drop in the fall as litter, they help build soil, and that soil helps the establishment of other plants.”
Organic matter falling into the water is another important component of succession in the littoral zone, where shallow aquatic plants grow.
“Leaf fall into those littoral zones is important because it helps build organic matter,” says Richard. “You get that contribution of willows to starting natural ecosystem processes on these sites.”
Some of the willows grew two metres during the first year and the survival rate was close to 100 per cent. “They are growing like crazy right along the shores of Base Mine Lake which is fairly saline,” says Craig.
The tallest seedlings planted were 40 centimetres in length, but many were smaller. By the end of the summer, the average height of the tallest individual was 180 centimetres.
“It’s mind-blowing. My technician is 6’2” and they’re up to his shoulders,” says Richard. “Not only seeing them grow and survive last fall, but going back this spring and seeing everything alive from the base to the tip of the plant was quite satisfying. This is just the beginning. I think there’s potential to use plants to more effectively deal with challenging sites and to me, that’s the exciting part.”
Photography helping to monitor reclamation progress
A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. And when it comes to using advanced camera technology, Syncrude is literally watching the Sandhill Fen’s evolution 365 days a year.
In 2012, three 12-metre poles were installed with high- resolution digital cameras mounted at the top that are programmed to take three photos a day. To get the best possible lighting, cameras snap the photos at 10:00 a.m., noon and 2:00 p.m. This timing also makes the best use of light during the winter months when daylight hours are short.
At the controls is senior research technologist Robert Skwarok. “The technology allows me to download the images directly from my computer in Edmonton and if any issues arise, I get automated email alerts from the camera,” he says.
Robert also controls the focus and shooting schedule remotely while receiving solar panel output power details, battery level information and daily temperatures. “So far, we’ve got 12 seasons – or three years’ – worth of photos under our belt,” he adds. “We’ve even captured wildlife images like birds, ducks and coyotes.”
But it’s not just time lapse photo images that help Syncrude witness first-hand the growth of the fen, which is located in the industry’s first mining area to be reclaimed using tailings material.
“The cameras give our scientists the ability to monitor plant and tree growth, see how water levels change and track wildlife in the winter via prints in the snow,” says Robert. “All of these provide vital insights into how Syncrude can improve its reclamation efforts.”
To see a time lapse video of the Sand Hill Fen, click here.
Research on water capped tailings incorporates leading-edge monitoring
When Syncrude closed the west quadrant after mining, the company filled the remaining pit with fluid fine tailings and capped it with water so that one day the resulting lake will be an important part of Syncrude’s closure landscape.
Filling the mine pit was the easy part. Understanding the lake – its movements, the settling of the tailings and its ability to sustain life – is the goal of an ongoing monitoring and research program.
Base Mine Lake is the oil sands industry’s first commercial-scale demonstration of end pit lake technology. The bottom half of the lake is fluid fine tailings, or FFT, a mixture of silt, clay, process-affected water and residual bitumen. A layer of fresh water caps the upper half. The demonstration intends to show that the water quality will improve over time while the particles in the tailings settle to the bottom of the lake below the water cap.
The Base Mine Lake was officially commissioned in December 2012. In 2013, fresh water and process water was added to bring the lake to an elevation of nearly 310 metres above sea level. Since lakes have water flowing in and out, pumps were installed to maintain the water level and mimic the flow that will naturally occur when different watershed elements are reclaimed and connected to the lake, and outflow can ultimately be directed towards the Athabasca River.
While Base Mine Lake’s ongoing monitoring program began in February 2013, the research that led to this demonstration phase began long before the first drop of water was added.
“Understanding what’s happening in the lake is the role of monitoring. Understanding why that’s happening is the role of research,” says technical lead Carla Wytrykush.
Monitoring involves setting baselines for a long list of water quality and lake processes. It also includes detecting and measuring changes in the lake in the first few years to develop a baseline of biophysical data to track lake performance.
Today there are six research programs underway with multiple activities to explore different aspects of the lake as it evolves over time.
Kathryn Dompierre, a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, conducted one of these studies. Towards greater understanding of the energy dynamics and water chemistry of the lake, her thesis research proved that tailings settlement is currently the main form of mass and heat transport from FFT to the lake. “It’s a fundamental research question that needed to be answered,” says Kathryn. “We have shown that what we expected to happen did happen by doing the field investigation.”
Further research in this area will look at the movement of more complicated components like naphthenic acids that degrade over time.
Maximizing steam efficiency through trap testing
Syncrude’s original operation was built during the energy crisis of the 1970s. To protect against rising energy costs, extensive cogeneration processes were built to ensure a reliable source of steam and electricity, and to recover waste heat for reuse.
Efforts continue today, including a program introduced in 2014 to test and replace thousands of old steam traps with more energy efficient and reliable devices.
Steam is among Syncrude’s primary commodities and is produced by Utility boilers as well as from waste heat from Upgrading units. Steam is used to help separate oil from sand and to generate the processing temperatures needed to convert bitumen into a high quality, light, low sulphur crude oil.
Steam traps are a type of automatic valve that filters out condensate (condensed steam) and non-condensable gases such as air without letting steam escape.
“As steam flows through pipes it loses heat and eventually starts condensing,” explains Mike Di Fabio, production planning coordinator. “Steam traps collect condensate and route it safely out of the steam system into the condensate system for reuse.”
Mike, who is helping roll out the project, adds that managing steam trap deficiencies and reducing leaks is resulting in financial benefits, improved safety and reliability as well as better environmental performance.
“We’re recovering steam and condensate that would otherwise be lost to sewers and end up in a tailings pond,” he explains. “One of the other big benefits is minimizing the amount of water and energy necessary to make-up for steam losses.”