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Canada's wood bison near proposed oil project face 'imminent threats' - minister

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Canada’s wood bison, who live in northern Alberta near the proposed site of Teck Resources Ltd’s Frontier oil sands project, face “imminent threats” to their recovery, a report from the country’s environment department said.

A one-page summary released late on Wednesday said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has concluded the bison are threatened and that “immediate intervention is required to allow for recovery.”

The summary does not mention Frontier, which is proposed to operate for 40 years starting in 2026. But it said the Ronald Lake herd is at risk of contracting disease in the nearby Wood Buffalo National Park and of losing range to “proposed industrial activities.”

Wilkinson must decide by the end of February whether to approve C$20.6-billion ($15.67 billion) Frontier, which would produce up to 260,000 barrels of oil per day. He could also delay.

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government says yes, it would call into question his promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Saying no could infuriate Alberta, which is already angry over a perceived federal bias against the energy industry.

Canada has listed the wood bison, North America’s largest land mammal, as threatened since 2003. Nine of 12 free-ranging herds are disease-free, and a federal strategy aims to help the population recover.

Two herds in northeastern Alberta face imminent threats, the report said.

Frontier would encompass part of the Ronald Lake herd’s range. Development could cause the bison to move into the national park, putting it in contact with herds known to carry bovine tuberculosis or brucellosis, according to a panel report last year commissioned by the federal government and Alberta Energy Regulator.

The continued use of Ronald Lake bison by indigenous peoples depends on the herd remaining disease-free.

It is unlikely that Ottawa could attach conditions to Teck’s project to protect the bison, said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist at Alberta Wilderness Association, which opposes Frontier.

“We don’t have confidence that putting a big open-pit mine smack dab in the middle of a bison herd could be mitigated.”

If Frontier proceeds, Teck will mitigate the effects on bison by building barriers to keep the herd from Frontier operations, reclaim land for bison habitat, and maintain indigenous access, company spokesman Chris Stannell said.

Teck has not committed to building the project.

Chief Executive Don Lindsay said on Wednesday that the company first needs a pipeline to be built, a partner, and favorable oil prices. ($1 = 1.3142 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba Editing by Marguerita Choy)