Exploration will hurt caribou: assessors

The government has permitted a quartz mining exploration project that assessors say will negatively impact the Southern Lakes caribou herd. “They’re very sensitive right now to further development in their winter range,” said Jennifer Clark.

The government has permitted a quartz mining exploration project that assessors say will negatively impact the Southern Lakes caribou herd.

“They’re very sensitive right now to further development in their winter range,” said Jennifer Clark, with the Teslin office of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. “And we often hear from Yukon Environment that we’re at a threshold right now, that if there’s additional losses to winter habitat, that it could significantly affect the population.”

Sourdough Resources Inc.‘s Mag property is located in the Squanga Lake area, between Jake’s Corner and Johnson’s Crossing.

In a 2012 application to the assessment board, the company proposed 20 kilometres of new trails, 20 kilometres of line cuts, 60 trenches of 50 metres each, and up to 200 clearings of 20 by 20 metres for drill pads in the area.

The primary concern with the project was the destruction of important caribou habitat, especially areas rich with lichen, said Clark.

The caribou rely on lichen as a food source over the long winter.

The cutting of lines and trails through the area could also increase predation of the caribou, as wolves could use the pathways for easier access to their prey, said Clark.

YESAB recommended that the project not go ahead because the risk to the local caribou could not be mitigated.

But the government rejected the recommendation, arguing that with appropriate restrictions the work should be allowed to proceed.

The 91 mineral claims are within the winter range of the Carcross caribou herd, which is a sub-group of the Southern Lakes caribou herd.

The Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery Program was enacted in 1992 in response to falling herd numbers.

The government has banned hunting the animals, and local First Nations have voluntarily agreed not hunt the herd.

“That’s a pretty significant sacrifice,” said Clark.

This is the first time that the government has rejected a YESAB recommendation where the primary concern was impacts to the Southern Lakes caribou, she said.

The Yukon Fish and Game Association has particular reason to be unhappy with the government’s move.

The association applied in 2011 to build an outdoor education camp near Jake’s Corner, a site that is also in the Carcross herd’s winter range.

YESAB recommended against that project as well, but in this case the government agreed with the recommendation.

“I’d be very surprised if something else got through there,” said Gord Zealand, the fish and game association’s executive director.

The association has been working to educate Yukoners about wildlife protection since 1945.

The camp at Jake’s Corner was planned as a year-round space to teach stewardship of the environment.

“Try and leave the land as you found it and respect it,” is the association’s message, said Zealand.

The camp was planned on a three-hectare site. The only permanent structures would be tent platforms and perhaps a couple of outhouses.

But the area was too important to the caribou, said Clark.

“The key consideration with that one was that it was in a known high-intensity use area by caribou, and also in an area of concentrated important caribou habitat,” said Clark.

Because the camp was intended to operate in the winter, there was a risk that caribou would be disturbed by the presence of humans, extending the loss of habitat.

The mineral exploration project, on the other hand, is seasonal, and activity would not occur while caribou were in the area, said Clark.

The Fish and Game Association accepted that the risk to the caribou was great, but is unhappy to hear that other developments in the area have been permitted, said Zealand.

“It took us an awful long time to put that (application) together, and it took the wind out of our sails, quite frankly.”

Except under the highest level of assessment, the government has the ultimate authority to accept, modify or reject YESAB recommendations.

It was the land management branch of Energy, Mines and Resources that said the outdoor education camp should not proceed.

But it was the mineral resources branch that overturned the recommendation on the quartz exploration project.

Government officials have the ultimate responsibility to meet legal obligations and protect the environment, said Resources Minister Brad Cathers.

“I have confidence in the work done by our staff and have confidence that they make their best efforts to fulfill their legal obligations and their responsibilities to the public.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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