Caribou vs Mining: Mitigating Effects On Caribou Migrations

A woodland caribou in autumn colours
Dempster Highway, caribou, autumn, fall

In July, the Ross River Dena Council, on behalf of the Kaska Nation, filed an application for a federal court review regarding the proposed BMC Minerals Ltd. Kudz Ze Kayah (KZK) Project. The KZK Project is located 115 kilometres southeast of Ross River and is within the critical habitat for the Finlayson caribou herd. According to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, the project would have significant adverse effects on wildlife, including caribou. The project’s approval is conditional on a significant number of commitments to reduce adverse environmental impacts, including those on caribou. Although the impacts to caribou are not the sole project concern raised by the Ross River Dena Council, this dispute is emblematic of Canada-wide legislative imbalance where policies designed to protect caribou have been expanded at the same time that industrial development in caribou habitats has increased.

Caribou populations across Canada have been declining for decades, and many herds have been lost or face imminent loss. As of 2017, “28 out of 57 caribou herds are in decline; and among those, 20 out of 25 populations of mountain caribou are in decline” (Hebblewhite, M. [2017] Biological Conservation). For barren-ground caribou herds on the tundra, their numbers have fallen by over 70 per cent in the last two decades. As caribou populations have shrunk across Canada, Woodland caribou were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act, in 2003. To protect declining caribou herds, a vast amount of research has been completed and various protection guidelines and recovery strategies have been developed.

According to The Society For Conservation Biology, Woodland caribou occur at low densities and require vast areas of undisturbed habitat and, depending on the herd, they may rely on old-growth coniferous forests, peatlands and/or continuous tracts of mountaintop lichens. A common element of these habitats is that they are slow to develop and very slow to recover (if at all) from disturbance. Furthermore, research has shown that shifts in predator use of an area (e.g., road development) tend to be very impactful to caribou, compared to other wildlife. A growing body of research. including work in the Yukon, has shown that caribou are adaptable to natural disturbance and change but are highly sensitive to industrial disturbance. According to Yukon University/University of Alberta researcher Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow: “Industrial development causes habitat fragmentation and vegetation change resulting in increased vulnerability to predators and additional stressors on caribou populations.”

Despite the growing body of evidence tying caribou declines to resource-extraction projects, industrial developments impacting caribou herds continue to be approved. According to Rosemary-Claire Collard, a professor in the Geography department at Simon Fraser University, across Canada, of 65 major environmental assessments marked as having potentially significant adverse impacts to caribou—64 were approved. These 64 projects were largely approved under the basis that mitigation measures would be implemented to protect the caribou. Yet, the effectiveness of mitigation measures to protect caribou are largely unknown. Perhaps more disturbingly, eight environmental assessments (identified in Dr. Collard’s research) were flagged by the government for having insufficient caribou mitigation strategies, yet all of those projects were approved for development, regardless. It is the promise of unproven mitigation measures that evades efforts to protect caribou and implies a level of ecological accountability that is difficult, if not impossible, to assess on a case-by-case basis.

Although the caribou protection measures proposed at Kudz Ze Kayah may be shown to successfully limit disturbance to the Finlayson caribou herd, this project reflects core challenges to the goal of environmental assessment in producing win-win scenarios where economic benefits can be balanced with minimal environmental impacts. Efforts have been made to use a mitigative approach to limit environmental disturbance, but species like caribou show that this approach may be simply contributing to species declines rather than preventing it. Furthermore, in a world with more and more development, can mitigative approaches account for widespread and cumulative impacts facing wildlife? With biodiversity falling worldwide, we must challenge the pretense that all environmental impacts can be mitigated, and begin to align wildlife research with wildlife policy.

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