Inuit organizations raise caribou concerns at Baffinland hearing

Company says sloped embankments and underpasses along route should make impacts negligible

The question of how caribou will be impacted by the second phase of development at Baffinland’s Mary River mine has been a sticking point for Inuit organizations. The final hearing for the project began Nov. 2. (File photo)

By Elaine Anselmi

When was the last time caribou were seen on the road between Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s Mary River mine and its port at Milne Inlet?

Paul Irngaut, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.’s director of wildlife and environment, raised this question at the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s hearing on Baffinland’s expansion plans in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

It was 2013, said Baffinland consultant Mike Setterington. That was before the mine was in operation.

But that doesn’t mean the mine road scared the caribou away, he said.

“North Baffin caribou follow population cycles,” Setterington said. The population peaked in the 1930s, declined in the 1940s and peaked again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (He noted some data is missing for intervening years.)

“The population started declining in the late 1990s, before exploration began,” Setterington said.

The population has yet to recover and the latest counts put caribou of north Baffin anywhere between 152 and 600.

Baffinland has said impacts of the second phase of development on caribou of the area will be negligible. That includes the construction of a 100-kilometre rail line and increasing haul traffic on the tote road until that rail is complete.

This would allow Baffinland to increase production from 6 million tonnes of ore per year to 12 million tonnes.

Intervenors on the project disagree with the assessment of negligible impacts.

“Caribou are very sensitive. They’ll stop at a snowmobile track, so it’s not surprising there’s no evidence of caribou crossing the tote road,” said Irngaut. “If you build a railroad, that’s two barriers for them to cross.”

Lou Kamermans, director of sustainable development with Baffinland, pointed out that the tote road was first built in the 1960s and has since been used by caribou. “We’re fairly confident caribou have shown they will cross linear infrastructure,” Kamermans said.

Due to the low population of north Baffin caribou, Baffinland’s impact estimates have been based around caribou interactions with other northern extraction projects, diamond mines in particular.

Susan Leech, an environmental consultant with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, pointed out that no additional impacts were assessed for the interim period of increased trucking on the tote road.

She questioned Baffinland’s claim that 66 per cent of their proposed railway will be passable for caribou. She asked whether its accounting of this included sensory disruptions like smell and sound.

Setterington said the company included these considerations, but, having no data from north Baffin to base it on, they relied on information from northern diamond mines.

Given that, David Lee, with NTI, asked about the validity of this study and why confidence levels weren’t offered. Those would give a measure of the precision of the data used.

Setterington responded that it was not a scientific study, but theoretical, to try to estimate the sensory effects on animals due to habitat loss.

He said they had moderate levels of confidence in their impact prediction, but that ongoing monitoring remains important. So is the future study of caribou in the area, when their population rebounds.

“I am concerned about the emphasis put on these studies,” Lee responded.

Kamermans said Baffinland feels the evidence it has provided is valid. But he added that they are still open to altering the planned infrastructure and operations to accommodate caribou.

Right now, the railroad is planned to sit atop sloped embankments designed to be crossable for caribou. Inuit have noted that caribou are able to climb mountain slopes, said Setterington. The company was also informed by the road designs at other northern mines.

The rail plan also includes culverts to allow caribou to pass beneath the railroad, and level crossings that would be shared by people and caribou.

Charlie Inuarak, a former mayor of Pond Inlet, cast doubts on these measures.

Charlie Inuarak speaks about caribou behaviour on Nov. 5, the fourth day of the final hearing for Baffinland’s expansion of its Mary River mine. (Photo by Emma Tranter)

“Caribou will not want to use a crossing where there are tracks from transportation or any human activity,” he said. “The female caribou is very sensitive to smells … they can tell every time there’s human activity, just when they’re near any tracks.”

He said the underpasses for caribou would be the better option. He also said various points for crossing, which Baffinland has outlined, would be important as caribou move to different areas in changing weather.

“Ask hunting experts. They’re very familiar with the biology of the caribou: what bothers them and how they migrate through that area,” Inuarak said.

Baffinland has held workshops on caribou crossings and hosted a site visit to Mary River where mock-ups of the railway embankments were built.

From this trip, Amanda Hanson Main, with the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, asked whether Inuit indicated that the embankments would pose a barrier to caribou.

Megan Lord-Hoyle, Baffinland’s vice-president of sustainable development, responded,“I did hear from participants that caribou would be able to cross the embankments.”

“That suggests physical ability,” Hanson Main said.

But the lingering question remained: would they?

<I>The Nunavut Impact Review Board brought its final hearing on Baffinland’s proposed expansion of the Mary River mine to an abrupt halt on Nov. 6, the fifth day of the hearing. That’s because the board needs time to consider a motion from Aluki Kotierk, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., to adjourn the hearing for eight to 12 months.</I>

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(20) Comments:

  1. Posted by Stop Hunting Caribou on

    How are the populations supposed to rebound, if we keep killing the caribou? We could import reindeer meat from Russia to satisfy our want for country food.
    If we are supposed to be stewards and keepers of the land, then act like it and prove it!

  2. Posted by bob on

    Excellent point Charlie! Caribou, particularly female, are sensitive to smell. Without physically seeing something they will flee at the smell of something foreign out of instinct. Have you seen a railroad? Between the metal rail, treated wood, exhaust, and oil patches from gear/wheel oil it smells at an industrial scale. Just because caribou can physically cross this doesn’t mean they will. Constant avoidance of the area will have major repercussions.

    • Posted by Snapshot on

      Yes, true. Raindeers in around Germany has learned not to cross since ww2

  3. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    Having personally observed large caribou herds (in the thousands) last summer by the mine road going to Agnico Meliadine mine near Rankin what they are most afraid of is movement of
    Vehicles on the road more than 15 km/ hr even if they are one km away. I have seen the entire herd stampede away from the road when a vehicle travels more than that speed that distance away.

  4. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    I have also seen a large caribou herd out of Rankin being afraid to cross and step over a water pipe we use to pump water from charr river into our water lake. It was unfamiliar to them so they avoided it and were scared and were turned back from where they wanted to go.Now imagine a rail line with 2 metal pieces and treated wood with strong smell. Not to mention oil leaks exhaust smells etc. The caribou are also sensitive and afraid of waving flags along the road, personally saw that too. Listen to your elders they know more about caribou than anyone else!!!

  5. Posted by Fact Checker on

    Husbandry is included in the Nunavut Agreement.. Just sayin’. Want their population restored? What better way than herding them ourselves?

    Are North Baffin Inuit experts on Caribou crossing railroads? Why is there no consultation with experts in the specific field?

    I agree that hunting is a greater threat to Caribou population than anything else.

    • Posted by Ken on

      Fact Checker, you sound like you are not from up here, may I ask where you are from to get a understanding of your comment.

    • Posted by bob on

      research the magnitude of your “little” suggestion.
      to suggest that a culture completely change practices directly linked to identity is ignorant to say the least.

      • Posted by Sanikiluaq on

        Don’t Inuit have reindeer in Sanikiluaq?

  6. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    Fact checker. It took thousands of years for northern europeans to semi domesticate caribou into reindeer. It will not work with wild caribou any time soon.

    • Posted by INUK on

      Problem here is jobs verses traditional way . they will have to meet halfway

  7. Posted by Putuguk on

    Very beautiful picture of a cow and calf with this story. Amazing really. They are on top of a steep hill surrounded by boulders. Kinda like a truly massive railway embankment only in this case with much bigger rocks. How on earth did they get them up there?

    • Posted by Hunting on

      Too bad you don’t go hunting. Otherwise you wouldn’t be saying that.

  8. Posted by Northern Guy on

    Perhaps everyone should stop worrying about how a road and railway may affect caribou and start worrying about how pressures from over-hunting will. Baffin is at risk of permanently losing its caribou herd and Baffinland has absolutely nothing to with it.

    • Posted by Snapshot on

      Stop it before you make any more assumptions.
      It only shows your idealogy of what-if

  9. Posted by Contributing Factors on

    All kinds of human impacts affect caribou. The question is to what extent does each impact have on caribou populations; and to to what extent would each be apportioned to mitigate.

    Rain came to the North Baffin in late October 2004 and for several years, all of Baffin Island being affected by frozen ice disabling caribou to get to the lichen during the winter time, resulting in skinny caribou, with females being unable to produce as much milk for their newborn. I went caribou hunting that spring 2005 in the south Baffin and there was literally no meat on the caribou.

    Hunting and railroads affect caribou, but their impacts might not be as great as climate change. Caribou sit atop glaciers to cool off in the summer which also discourages wolves from attacking as much as they would on tundra.

    Hunters and Baffinland can work together to study and find ways to mitigate and ensure caribou populations are sustainable or monitored. All other humans can also learn to mitigate by lessening their carbon print in their daily lives.

  10. Posted by Joey on

    So sad bim gives the hunters so much when they walk on to site free food, gas, supply’s and you see half the stuff hit the pond inlet auction fb site if this mine shuts down how will everyone get affected. I met Charlie before the first thing he asked for was money or anything worth value while I was at work for bim.
    When it all comes down to it cut everyone a cheque for 10 k in pond and it will be approved

    • Posted by Crack a smile on

      Everyone already knows Charlie always try to make people smile. Connecting to people.
      If you and I can’t see that it’s our loss.

    • Posted by snapshot on

      @joey, funni kid, you made me laugh about the fb auction, i didn’t know ready made food goes through pond inlet auction.

  11. Posted by Gerald Cashen on

    The truth needs to be told. Baffinland needs to release the biologist report on what happened to the caribou around the mine site in approximately 2011. People working at the mine on there time off took their sleds over land and took out 2 small heards of over 30 caribou.The evidence is in those reports.

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