Judas Creek placer mine would have ‘irreversible’ effects on caribou, says assessment board

A proposed placer mine near Judas Creek should not proceed because of possible negative impacts to the Carcross caribou herd, according to Yukon's assessment board.

A proposed placer mine near Judas Creek should not proceed because of possible negative impacts to the Carcross caribou herd, according to Yukon’s assessment board.

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board released its recommendation for the 45 placer mining claims near Jake’s Corner on the Alaska Highway earlier this week.

“The project will result in significant adverse effects to the Carcross caribou herd that cannot be mitigated,” according to YESAB’s evaluation report. “The Teslin designated office recommends to the decision body that the project not be allowed to proceed.”

The Yukon government’s mineral resources branch has been given 30 days to make a decision about the project.

This development, proposed by Nicolai Goeppel and Alex Shaman, has been heavily scrutinized since it was submitted for assessment in December.

The project is in the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dun and Carcross/Tagish First Nations, and is adjacent to Kwanlin Dun settlement land. The 45 claims overlap four unnamed tributaries of Judas Creek. Mining activities would have occurred annually between May 1 and Nov. 15 for 10 years.

In February and March, YESAB received detailed submissions from Kwanlin Dun, Carcross/Tagish and Taku River Tlingit First Nations, the Carcross/Tagish Renewable Resources Council, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Environment Yukon. All expressed concerns about potential effects on the Carcross caribou herd, whose core winter range overlaps the proposed placer mine site. Threats include more noise, activity and roads in the area, which could drive the caribou away.

“Caribou have been the lifeblood for the people of Carcross and Tagish for centuries,” wrote Lawrence Ignace, director of heritage, lands and natural resources for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

He wrote that during the Klondike Gold Rush, the construction of the Alaska Highway and the creation of the Whitehorse Rapids dam caused a long-term decline in the caribou population, and the First Nation has voluntarily refrained from hunting caribou for the past 27 years to help the herd recover.

“If this application is approved to proceed in whole or in part, (the First Nation) will take necessary steps to stop the project from proceeding,” he wrote.

YESAB also held two public meetings in Carcross and Marsh Lake in early March, where Goeppel spoke with community members about the project.

And at least 15 residents submitted written comments to the assessment board, with a wide range of opinions.

Some were concerned about impacts on migratory birds, fish populations and drinking water quality, as well as on caribou.

But others voiced support for the development.

“I think people are over-estimating the size of the project,” wrote George Young. “This is not going to be an open-pit mine and the environmental impact and footprint of the project will be relatively small.”

Others focused on the possible economic spin-off from the development.

“Mining in the area could generate economic activity for businesses like restaurants, retail outlets and industrial supplies,” wrote Grant Warkentin. “This would have a positive impact on the everyday lives of people who live, work and play in the area.”

The Department of Energy, Mines and Resources also had few concerns about the project.

In the end, YESAB decided that migratory birds and water quality could be protected by clearing the land outside the nesting season, and controlling the rate of sediment discharge from the site.

But the threats to caribou habitat simply couldn’t be ignored.

“Due to the long period of time required to recover winter range habitat (~80 years), loss of this habitat is considered permanent and for all practical purposes … irreversible,” according to the report.

Goeppel, who’s been casually exploring the area since 2011, said he’s disappointed with the recommendation, especially given how long the process has taken. This is the first water licence he has applied for.

“When I started the application process, I thought it would be pretty straightforward,” he said.

Goeppel is skeptical that the Judas Creek project would have a major impact on the Carcross caribou herd. He said he has seen many caribou tracks on old trails in the area, and he believes the herd is already habituated to human presence.

He said he’s not ready to walk away from the claims just yet. If he doesn’t get his water licence this time around, he’d like to try again.

“I just can’t turn my back on it quite yet,” he said, adding that there was about $200,000 worth of assessment work done on the project last year.

Still, Goeppel said a number of resource projects in that area have “hit a wall,” and he wonders whether it’s possible for any development to occur in the region, given the concerns of local residents and First Nations.

And he has some advice, coming out of this experience, for any other aspiring prospectors.

“Don’t explore for minerals in the Southern Lakes area.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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