Palaeontological Resources and the Alberta Historical Resources Act

According to the Historical Resources Act (HRA) of Alberta, a palaeontological resource is “a work of nature consisting of or containing evidence of extinct multicellular beings and includes those works of nature or classes of works of nature designated by the regulations as palaeontological resources.” These resources include fossilized remains of animals (bones, teeth, scales, shells) and plants, as well as fossilized footprints or tracks, eggshells, and even coprolites (fossilized feces).

In order to ensure the preservation of these palaeontological resources, section 37(2) of the HRA states that any proposed activity that is likely to threaten the integrity of a historic resource (in this case, any fossils) is to be preceded by a Historic Resources Impact Assessment.

Proponents are encouraged to consult the Listing of Historic Resources, which is a public tool that provides geographical information about areas that have the highest potential to (or are known to) contain historic resources. Each parcel of land is given a historic resources value (HRV) from 1 to 5. An HRV 1 is the highest level (designated as a Provincial Historic Resource), whereas HRV 5 means a “high potential to contain a historic resource.” This tool may aid in the initial phases of project planning, so that some of these high potential areas may be avoided during development. When avoidance is not possible, a Historic Resources Impact Assessment may be necessary prior to the commencement of development activities.

A palaeontologist qualified to hold a permit is necessary to conduct any field assessments. In order to obtain a permit, the palaeontologist must hold at least a Master’s Degree in palaeontology and have been approved by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (RTMP) as a qualified historic resources consultant. The palaeontologist may then apply to obtain a mitigative permit in order to proceed with the Historic Resources Impact Assessment.

Palaeontological Historic Resources Impact Assessments

In palaeontology, two types of field assessments are most commonly conducted for industry and development related activities:

  1. Pre-Impact Assessments
  2. Post-Impact Assessments (or Monitoring)

Pre-Impact Assessments are completed prior to development. The palaeontologist will survey any lands expected to be affected by project development activities and evaluate the potential impact to fossil resources within project boundaries. Sometimes test pits are necessary (especially in areas with thick vegetation covering the ground) as part of the assessment. Once the field survey is completed, the palaeontologist will draft a palaeontological Historic Resources Impact Assessment (pHRIA) report. In this report, any geological and fossil observations will be documented and discussed regarding their significance. These observations will then result in a list of recommendations by the palaeontologist. These recommendations will detail actions to be taken to mitigate impact to any significant fossil resources, and some of the most common outcomes are: a) no further action is required (the development activities have low to no potential to impact fossil resources); b) certain areas are to be avoided (if project designs have a certain degree of flexibility, and avoidance of certain areas is possible, it may be the safest course of action to avoid further need for mitigation); and c) monitoring is recommended (there is no possibility for project development activities to avoid impact to potentially significant fossil resources, and a palaeontologist needs to be present on-site during these activities in order to salvage any significant fossil resources).

Post-Impact Assessments, or Monitoring is used if development activities are considered to have high potential to impact significant fossil resources, then a post-impact (or monitoring) program by a palaeontologist qualified to hold a permit will be recommended. Because each project is different, it is paramount that communication between the proponent and the palaeontologist is established as early as possible to ensure compliance with HRA requirements. A focused and efficient monitoring program, in which the palaeontologist is only present during relevant development activities, is also more easily achieved through clear and effective communication. Once a Monitoring Program and schedule have been established, the permit holding palaeontologist will be present at the work site whenever development activities with high potential to impact fossil resources are planned to happen. This means that a palaeontologist may be present on site daily, or only periodically, depending on the schedule of requirements. Once the field component of the monitoring program is complete, a pHRIA report will be written to describe what was observed during monitoring of site activities. A list of recommendations will result from the monitoring report, and these may include: a) there are no further concerns for palaeontological resources within the area (and therefore clearance is recommended); or b) the discovery of significant palaeontological resources within the project area requires it to be designated as a “high sensitivity zone for palaeontological resources” and any future activities within the area are recommended to be monitored by a qualified palaeontologist.