'If we push too far, we will lose'

Biologist: mining and caribou herds don't mix


Nunavummiut have a choice: do they want more mining development? Or do they want to prevent the territory's large herds of migrating caribou from disappearing?

Mitch Campbell, a wildlife biologist with the Government of Nunavut, told delegates to the recent Nunavut Mining Symposium in Iqaluit that some kinds of development are just not compatible with caribou.

"If we push too far, we will lose that resource and people have to be aware of this when they make decisions, " Campbell said. "It is a choice, but people have to be cognizant of what the outcome can be."

Replacing meat from the barren-land caribou herds of the Kivalliq would cost Nunavummiut $12 million, said Campbell, referring to a report by Intergroup Consultants of Winnipeg on the total annual net value of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds.

The territory needs a caribou management strategy and monitoring program to protect its caribou stocks. For this, Campbell said "we need some help and some resources."

In the meantime, Campbell urged mining and mineral exploration companies to be aware of the impact of their activities on caribou.

For example, companies often set up camp in high, windy places because at the top of hills, there are fewer insects.

However, these are the same bug-free spots that caribou favour. When people occupy them, caribou may change their migration routes, sometimes with disastrous results, because they find themselves pursued by insects or without sufficient food.

Campbell suggested mining and mineral exploration companies contact the GN, regional wildlife organization and local hunters and trappers organizations before starting work in areas where there are caribou.

"We can give up information and we're happy to do it," Campbell said.

Natural changes in habitat, parasites and diseases, predation and the effects of a warmer climate can all affect caribou.

But Campbell said studies show people and human-caused disturbances like low-level flights, all-terrain vehicles, construction activity and road traffic can affect caribou, too.

To drive home his point, Campbell showed several slides of caribou running.

That's how photographers often catch caribou, but, when caribou are running or even looking at a camera, this means they're probably not feeding enough.

When caribou don't eat enough, their health degenerates, and female caribou may give birth less often or abandon their calves, Campbell said.

As the general condition and numbers of caribou declines, the caribou become less resilient, and their population count may drop dramatically.

That's what is happening in Nunavut where every mainland caribou population is in decline.

The Beverly caribou herd which had 276,000 animals in 1994, has "tanked," Campbell said.

During an aerial survey of the herd last summer, spotters counted 93 females, half the number recorded in the summer of 2007 and a huge drop from the 5,737 females counted in 1994.

The survey also revealed only
15 calves for every 100 females where there used to be about 80 calves for every 100 cows at the peak of ­calving.

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou management board shares Campbell's concerns that mining may disturb calving and post-calving areas.

The disappearance of the Beverly herd coincides with increased uranium exploration on and near the herd's calving grounds.

"The Beverly caribou herd is in a vulnerable state, and needs to be given the opportunity to recover from its population decline. This means the herd must be protected from disturbance and other adverse effects of land use activities, including mineral exploration and development," the management board said in recent comments to the Nunavut Impact Review Board on the Areva Kiggavik uranium mine project west of Baker Lake.

The management board told the NIRB that there are concerns about:

  • low level flights, particularly if the flight path of aircraft crosses over large groups of pregnant female caribou during spring migration, or cow/calf groups during post-calving and late summer;
  • the cumulative effects of continued exploration and development across caribou ranges, including the loss of habitat, obstruction of caribou movements – from roads, mine pits, drawing water from lakes, construction of mine facilities and bridge construction;
  • contamination of water, soil and vegetation;
  • disturbance to caribou from all transportation by ground or air of personnel, materials and supplies; and from the noise associated with construction and operation of all facilities; and
  • increased hunting access to caribou – resulting from all roads, particularly those from Baker Lake to the mine site, which may result in reduced availability to caribou for people in Baker Lake.

Caribou in Nunavut's Kivalliq region are not the only northern caribou herds in distress.

The Peary caribou population in the High Arctic has dropped from 50,000 in 1960s to about 7,900 animals in 2001, and the western Arctic caribou population is down 75 per cent from 472,000 in 1980s.

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