New mine could impact caribou migration

New mine could impact caribou migration
Caribou advocates worry another mining road and the heavy traffic it carries will adversely impact the already struggling Bathurst herd on its migration.Photo: Alex Hall.

The NWT’s Member of Parliament wants more preventative measures taken to protect the Bathurst caribou herd, which he fears is likely to be impacted adversely by the addition of another diamond mine northeast of Yellowknife.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington (NDP) said the long road with massive freight and ore-haul trucks included in De Beers’ recently approved Gahcho Kué diamond mine project is likely to create a “linear disturbance.”

“What is the effect on caribou migration patterns?” Bevington asked following approval of Gahcho Kué in late July. “There has to be research done.”

Bevington said the string of mines northeast of Yellowknife, connected by a winter road that has constant traffic, could act as a barrier to the migrating herd, impacting the animals’ ability to find food. It could also make it harder for subsistence harvesters if the herds are driven farther away – a worry expressed by communities.

“There must have been studies done – monitoring of caribou behaviour – that can shed some light on this,” Bevington said, adding if there are any such problems, measures must be put in place by the mines to prevent any harm to caribou.

The new mine was approved by the review panel, a subset of the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board (MVEIRB), on July 22 despite the project’s having “the potential to cause significant adverse impacts to the environment.”

“The measures and follow-up programs the panel has recommended will ensure that no significant adverse impacts will result,” the report stated.

Bevington was a member of the MVEIRB when it assessed the Ekati mine expansion proposal in 1999-2000. That proposal involved a second mine site connected to the main project by road with ore being hauled by huge trucks to the main processing plant – a road that also crossed caribou migration routes. The matter of the impact on caribou was discussed at that time.

Chuck Hubert, senior environmental assessment officer with the MVEIRB, told The Journal that “research on the impacts of winter roads on caribou has been done and a lot of lessons learned” since Ekati.

He said it is known that roads are a partial barrier to caribou migration and the project proponent is required to monitor caribou activity and find methods to reduce the impacts of vehicles and to come up with mitigation measures.

Hubert said the primary task will be monitoring the animals to determine if they are impacted, which is to be done in a number of ways. Some of the animals will be fitted with radio collars and are tracked regularly. Company trucks with trained staff will also routinely drive the length of the road to observe any animals and their behaviour. He said community monitors – local harvesters familiar with caribou behaviour and who know the area – would also be utilized.

In addition to knowledge accumulated in the NWT during the last 20 years of diamond mine development, Hubert said there have been studies done for a similar situation relating to the road to Prudhoe Bay on the north slope of Alaska. That “good research” could be built upon, he said.

Hubert said some measures that could be taken to limit impacts on caribou migration along the road include trucks travelling in convoys instead of being spaced apart, or travelling only at certain times when caribou are not present. He said the winter road location – across lakes or on ridges – could be important to lessen impacts as well.

But there are some who are doubtful the monitoring will have a mitigating effect on caribou disturbance.

“They have been mining there for 20 years. They should have figured that out a long time ago,” commented Earl Evans, chair of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.

Evans said he has been saying the same things about threats to caribou for years, but no action has been taken. He said caribou have learned that roads are a threat to be avoided. Hunters use them, predators like wolves follow roads for ease of travel and there is disturbance from traffic.

“They learn, and they learn quick and they get the hell out of there,” he said. Locations of animals with radio collars indicate they go as far away from human activity as possible.

“Studies show the zone of influence of a road on caribou is about 50 km where they can sense vibrations or smell it or whatever it is they do,” Evans said.

He said caribou migration, particularly by the pregnant cows heading north to the calving grounds, is impacted.

“Migration paths are deflected so they travel further. Their rate of movement is increased so they burn more energy. They have more stress on their bodies,” Evans said.

The review panel decision notes “the likelihood of large numbers of caribou interacting with the project is too low to have detectable effects on the herd.”

Evans said looking at the mine alone is not enough, and roads should be considered part of a mine’s footprint in any environmental assessment, especially regarding impacts on caribou.

Gahcho Kué mine background

The Gahcho Kué diamond project is expected to have an 11-year life after an initial two years of construction and is projected to produce 4,500,000 carats (900 kg) of diamonds. It is located on the tundra at Kennady Lake in Akaitcho Territory, 85 km southeast of De Beers’ Snap Lake diamond mine and about 100 km directly north of the tip of the East Arm of Great Slave lake, approximately 280 km northeast of Yellowknife. It will be served by a 120-km spur road off the winter road to Lupin Mine.

Gahcho Kué will be an open pit mine targeting three ore bodies, one of them under Kennady Lake. During construction, the lake will be isolated from other lakes with a series of dikes and berms and a portion of the lake will be drained and pumped into a nearby lake. The fish population in the lake will be netted out with minimal possible wastage. Kennady Lake will be refilled once the project is complete and it is expected to be naturally repopulated by fish.

Gahcho Kué is the Chipewyan name for the Kennady Lake area, meaning “place of the big rabbit.” The area is on the migration route of the Bathurst barren ground caribou herd, which has been traditionally harvested by Dene and Métis from Lutsel K’e and Fort Resolution and in earlier times by people of the Tlicho.

The Gahcho Kué diamond project is a joint-venture between Mountain Province Diamonds Inc. (49 per cent) and De Beers Canada Inc. (51 per cent).

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