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Proposed Port and Road in Canada’s Central Arctic Raise Caribou Concerns

Nunavut is pushing for federal cash to help advance a mining project that would bring badly needed jobs to the territory’s northwest. But critics – including territorial government biologists – worry about the impact on a nearby barren-ground caribou herd.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Two barren-ground caribou near the Back River of the Northwest Territories, Canada.©Jeremy HARRISON/ WWF-Canada

A controversial project in Canada’s Central Arctic is moving ahead to environmental screening, despite reservations from government biologists about development in critical caribou calving grounds.

The Grays Bay Port and Road Project, a joint venture of the government of Nunavut and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, was first announced in 2016, in hopes of drawing industry and development to the Kitikmeot region in northwestern Nunavut. In particular, the project’s supporters hope to unlock the Izok Lake mineral deposit, which is believed to hold massive amounts of zinc, lead, copper and silver. The Chinese-owned mining firm MMG Canada, which owns the deposit, says it can’t justify developing a mine without a big public investment in a road and port.

The C$487-million (US$401-million), primarily federal-funded project would consist of a 227-km (141-mile) road connecting the mineral-rich Slave Geological Province, located between Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, to Arctic shipping routes and a new deepwater port located at the midpoint of the Northwest Passage. However, prior to backing the venture, the government of Nunavut had planned on banning development on caribou calving grounds – which this project would intersect. Shortly thereafter, the territorial cabinet reversed this stance, saying it would review proposed developments on a case-by-case basis – angering environmental groups and going against the advice of biologists on staff.

If the project moves forward, the Nunavut government asserts that increased mineral investment in the region will boost the territory’s GDP by a total of C$5.1 billion (US$4.2 billion) over a 15-year period, while also supporting the economies of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The government anticipates the project would bring well-paying jobs to a region that suffers from high unemployment. And as the first road connecting Nunavut to the rest of Canada, it has the potential of reducing the costs of living and increasing food security for nearby communities. The project “will create a transportation backbone to overcome barriers to regional economic and business development, stimulate private investment in the Western Arctic and encourage development of resource projects,” said Bernie MacIsaac, assistant deputy minister of economic development for the government of Nunavut.

The median income in the Kitikmeot region is C$15,000 (US$12,362) a year, with only one mine currently operating in the region. “The situation is pretty bleak,” said Scott Northey, COO of the Nunavut Resources Corporation, an Inuit-owned company charged with establishing economic partnerships with mining developers in Nunavut. “There is no capability for a commercial fishery in the region – it’s mining or nothing. Therefore, there’s desire to see if [Inuit communities] can figure out how to develop mining opportunities.”

A herd of barren-ground caribou seen near the Back River of the Northwest Territories, Canada. (©Jeremy HARRISONWWF-Canada)

But at the same time, environmental groups and biologists believe the North’s caribou herds would be significantly impacted by any such development. The Kitikmeot region is home to the Bathurst barren-land caribou herd, which has dropped from 472,000 animals in 1987 to fewer than 20,000 today. Though barren-ground caribou herds experience massive natural fluctuations in size, wildlife biologists say that alone does not explain such a drastic variation in recent decades. Rather, they point to a warming climate and changing vegetation in the North.

Industrial development, too, can help trigger population declines and makes it harder for herds to recover, according to biologists. Caribou are highly sensitive to any impact on their spring calving grounds. “When they’re just finishing a giant migration and about to give birth to their young, they’re super susceptible to move on too quickly or abandon their young when disturbed,” said Brandon Laforest, senior specialist of arctic species and ecosystems for the World Wildlife Fund. Disturbances can also lead to poor health in adult females and trigger miscarriages.

These vulnerabilities were behind a recommendation made by Nunavut’s Department of Environment biologists to bar all development on calving grounds. When the Nunavut cabinet switched stances on the issue last year, WWF set out to find out why. Their access-to-information request uncovered a string of emails in which then-deputy minister of environment Gabriel Nirlungayuk referred to the decision as a “sad day for caribou.”

“It’s probably too late, and no one would listen anyway since [Economic Development and Transportation] and [Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs] know more about caribou than us,” wrote Conor Mallory, the assistant director of policy, planning and legislation at the Department of Environment. “But it might be worth pointing out to someone that this position doesn’t make sense.”

While caribou declines have largely been due to natural cycling, Laforest emphasized how important it is to manage for the herd’s potential growth. “We hope they’ll be able to recover, but they need to be given space to do so. It’s important not to shift the baseline by only protecting habitat for 20,000. There are certain areas we feel should be set aside for protection, and that includes all of their calving grounds.”

The government of Nunavut says that if the project moves ahead, it intends to take measures to minimize the impact on caribou herds in the area. “Consistent with our position on development in certain caribou habitat, seasonal shutdowns have been proposed to ensure caribou are not disturbed when and where they are present,” said MacIsaac. “The government of Nunavut supports caribou habitat protection and responsible development, and welcomes comments from all parties on any project.”

Northey also pointed out that calving grounds are not static. The area where the Grays Bay project would be built has not been used by the caribou to calve in nearly a decade, he said. “We believe strongly the caribou issue can be managed. We can do adaptive management to identify where and when they’re calving and shut the port and road down.”

The Grays Bay project will now undergo an environmental screening by the Nunavut Impact Review Board. If there are no hold-ups and federal funding is approved, the government of Nunavut hopes to have shovels in the ground by 2020. But it’s likely many will contest the project. “There are a lot of ramifications and repercussions of building a road like this,” said Laforest. While the Bathurst herd is not harvested at any significant level by Inuit in Nunavut, the herd can be life-sustaining for communities in the Northwest Territories. “Because those communities are outside of Nunavut, it’s harder for them to participate in the review process.” And already, there’s been a harvest moratorium on the herd for two years. “They’re already sacrificing access to the herd,” he said, “so for a road to be approved there will be a lot of tension.”

Moreover, the review will only look at the development of the port and road – not the long-term and wide-ranging impacts of resulting development in the region. If more minerals are coming out of the Interior and put onto ships, that will presumably increase shipping traffic in the Northwest Passage.

At the end of the day, though, Northey said there’s “not a chance in any universe that the Inuit will do something that will harm caribou populations. They’re going to continue to move this project forward to see where they can get to, but if they aren’t comfortable that they can do this without harming caribou populations, they’re not going to do it.”

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