Yukon Environment doesn’t have the facts to assert that development in the Southern Lakes region will hurt caribou, according to the president of a local exploration company.
Kevin Brewer runs Sourdough Resources Inc. The company came under fire recently when the NDP Opposition discovered that the company had been permitted to do exploration work in the Squanga Lake area after assessors recommended that the project not go forward because of threats to caribou.
“Is there a policy by the Yukon government that any impact on caribou moss is going to be … rejected, or not?” asked Brewer.
Neither the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board nor Yukon Environment could prove that his project would impact the caribou at all, he said.
Assessors’ objections to Brewer’s project were overturned by officials at Energy, Mines and Resources, and he eventually was permitted to proceed with the work.
Still, the assessment process took too long and was not based on sound science, said Brewer. His company was “held at ransom,” he said.
In making the case that the project would impact caribou, Yukon Environment referenced a 2007 study by caribou biologists.
“The quantity of open pine lichen habitat required to sustain the Southern Lakes caribou population is currently at a threshold where additional losses within the Southern Lakes caribou range represents a significant risk to the population, and may cause negative impacts,” according to the department’s submission to YESAB.
“Approximately 15 per cent of the Southern Lakes caribou winter range is comprised of open pine lichen habitat, and this is considered the minimum level required to support the herd.”
But Brewer says the potential impact of his exploration work on lichen is negligible.
He calculated the total area of caribou habitat available today by taking 15 per cent of the herd’s total range.
Then he calculated the total possible impact of all his proposed exploration work, assuming he cleared all the land allowed under his proposal and assuming all of the land he cleared was pine lichen habitat.
By dividing one by the other, he found that the maximum possible impact of his work would be to clear 0.0036 per cent of existing caribou habitat within the Southern Lakes range, he said.
And it is highly unlikely that he would clear as much land as the proposal accounts for, said Brewer.
The government encourages people to apply for five-year permits and ask for the maximum activity they might do under a best-case scenario, said Brewer.
“It’s not good advice, because I could have filed a much simpler exploration permit that would have said, ‘Oh I’m just going to restrict my activities into this area, I’m going to drive an ATV trail in, I’m going to put a couple of trenches in, we’re going to do some soil sampling and that’s it for the year.’”
That’s pretty much what he did, he said. Last season he put in 1.5 kilometres of ATV trail and one 30-metre-long trench.
This year he plans to dig a couple more trenches, and perhaps proceed with other sampling activities if results are good, he said.
The Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery Program was enacted in 1992 in response to falling herd numbers.
Since then a great deal of effort has gone into studying and protecting the herd.
The government has banned hunting the animals, and local First Nations have voluntarily agreed to not hunt the herd.
Brewer understands the need to be careful, he said, but restricting activity in the area should be based on good science and risk assessments.
“I’ve been in Labrador in a camp, where I had caribou walking past our camp for three days solid in groups of four caribou that stretched on for miles and miles and miles and miles. Did they flinch when they saw the camp? Not one single bit. They just kept moseying on and doing their thing.”
Yukon Environment could not provide him with a risk assessment, showing how likely it would be that his project would impact caribou, he said.
The department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
“I’ve observed caribou in industrial settings as well. I’ve seen a caribou herd actually hang around a mine. They hung around a mine in southwestern Newfoundland, because they knew every time they ventured out of the mine site, they might get shot.”
Officials also visited his claims without letting him know in advance, found some caribou lichen and caribou droppings near the highway, and extrapolated that information to his entire block of 91 claims, he said.
“I’ve only seen one sign of caribou walking through over 40 of my claims.”
Other projects in the area have been affected as well, said Brewer, including a man who wanted to build a house in the area.
“They can’t oppose every development because it might impact caribou moss. I think that’s an illogical way of doing it.”
Sourdough’s exploration work has been compared to a proposal brought forward by the Yukon Fish and Game Association.
It wanted to build an outdoor education camp in the area, but the project was denied by assessors and officials because of potential caribou impacts.
There was no reason to deny that proposal, either, said Brewer.
“Those guys are going to be responsible in what they do, and if it somehow is impacting the caribou herd, they’d be the first people to stand up and say, ‘Well we’ve got to do something different here, or we’ve got to stop what we’re doing, and assess it.’”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at