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Suncor: Heeding call of the wild pays off

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Like most high school students, Mark Boulton was trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life as graduation loomed. Conventional wisdom pointed the Calgary kid to where the jobs were: management, engineering or perhaps geology.
“But my dad said, ‘don’t do that just because you’re going to get a job, do something you like,’” Mark says. “Growing up in Calgary and being so close to the mountains I always liked the outdoors, so I studied the biological sciences not knowing if I’d find a job, but I knew it was something that I’d enjoy.”

He did find a job as an environmental consultant, which eventually led to him joining Suncor as a full-time employee in 2011. Today Mark is a land and biodiversity policy specialist who spends most of his days supporting the company’s efforts on woodland caribou recovery in the Athabasca oil sands region in northeast Alberta through planning and policy development.

The federal government designated woodland caribou a species at risk over two decades ago and in 2012, it created a recovery strategy that set objectives and targets that provincial governments administer. As an operator working in a caribou range, Suncor must adhere to restrictions and regulations, and it falls to Mark and his colleagues to make sure the company is meeting these requirements.

“I try to explain it in this way: caribou don’t exist in large numbers on their own, so their strategy is to go where no one else wants to be,” he says, noting that the muskeg-carpeted boreal forest offers protection from predators. But when energy and forestry companies or recreation users disturb this habitat, it can create “highways” into this habitat for wolves and other predators to prey on the caribou, especially the calves.

“If you take the young ones out of the population, clearly that population isn’t going to grow.”

The science shows that an intact and continuous boreal forest provides the caribou room to live and roam on their range. But in areas where economic and other interests are a factor, the trick is trying to create a “working landscape,” which essentially means allowing various interests to operate on the land at the same time.

Suncor collaborates with other partners to protect woodland caribou, including the efforts of a group of energy companies and the forestry industry working in Alberta’s oil sands region through the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration (RICC). This initiative is led by the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), with the ultimate aim of restoring caribou habitat in northeast Alberta.

Mark believes Suncor and its industry partners are traveling in the right direction when it comes to habitat restoration but acknowledges that the journey is a long one. Forests, particularly northern ones, are slow to grow, which means that the work to repair disturbances take time to complete.

This work can include treating disturbances such as old seismic lines by planting seedlings, and applying other measures to rehabilitate the landscape. Mark recalls being part of such a project early in his time with Suncor when workers and heavy equipment were restoring the land. He wasn’t planting trees or operating a backhoe that day, but he was involved in the planning and traveled to the worksite.

“To be out in the outdoors and to see the substantial change on the landscape that was a result of a collective effort was pretty cool,” Mark says. “I feel fortunate that I found a spot where I actually get to do this kind of work and I’m happy that I took the advice my dad gave me way back in the day.”

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