Using tradition to keep caribou safe

Researchers with the West Kitikmeot/Slave Study have been working with Inuit and Dogrib hunters to find ways of protecting caribou from mine tailings.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT Ancient aboriginal hunting methods have inspired a new approach to wildlife protection near potentially dangerous mine sites in the Kitikmeot.

Researchers combined Inuit and Dogrib knowledge of caribou movements with some modern ideas about animal behaviour last summer.

What they came up with was a cheap and effective way of keeping the animals from straying too close to cyanide-laden tailings at the Lupin gold mine.

“It’s interesting, you turn out to have so much in common when you actually get down to talking about the animals,” said Dr. Anne Gunn, a GNWT caribou biologist working with the West Kitikmeot/Slave Study.

Traditional herding methods

Joseph Niptanatiak of the Kitikmeot Hunters and Trappers’ Association in Kugluktuk showed researchers how inukshuks were used by his ancestors to divert caribou toward shooting pits in the days before Inuit used guns.

Dogrib elders showed the team traditional diversion methods used below the treeline: funnel-shaped structures built out of tree roots and trees, bedecked with small flags.

“The fence we tried this summer was a combination of what we learned from the Dogribs and what was relatively easy to put up,” Gunn said.

Caribou are attracted to mining infrastructure, such as tailings ponds and airstrips, apparently because such clearings offer a vantage point that makes the animals feel safer.

“I think it’s the same sort of thing as the attraction of the caribou to lakes in the winter,” Gunn said.

“Also, the caribou choose the bare ground because, without the vegetation, there are fewer mosquitoes.”

Inuit hunters had expressed concern that caribou straying too close to the Lupin gold mine, southeast of Kuglugtuk, risk drowning in the soft mud flats of the tailing ponds.

Risk of poisoning

They also fear that caribou browsing on nearby vegetation and drinking from waste water in the tailings ponds may be poisoned, since tailings contain high levels of cyanide, Gunn said.

Long-term accumulation of heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic in the flesh of the caribou, is also a risk.

“The Dogrib have expressed a lot of concerns about Colomac [mine], as well, so we’re going to be working with them this winter on setting up some diversion fences there,” Gunn said.

To monitor the caribou behaviour at Lupin mine this summer, Gunn and her colleagues placed ordinary 35 mm cameras fitted with timers near the tailings ponds and the airstrip.

The photographs confirmed that the animals do indeed bed down on the mud flats, getting up frequently to graze on nearby vegetation.

The fence design researchers settled on consisted of three strands of rope, to which several ribblons and flags were attached at specific intervals.

“It worked,” Gunn said. “They walked parallel to it. They didn’t try to walk through it. They didn’t panic. It just guided them. And that was exactly what we wanted.”

A mining company called Diavik, which is proposing to build a diamond mine at Lac De Gras is now building on West Kitikmeot/Slave Study research to test their own site.

Diversion systems inspired by Inuit knowldege of caribou movements could be developed at future mine sites above the treeline, Gunn said.

“Out on the barrens, at any these mine sites, we could use inukshuks.”

“It’s interesting, you turn out to have so much in common when you actually get down to talking about the animals.”

GNWT caribou biologist Anne Gunn, on the relationship between scientists and aboriginal hunters

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