Caribou's fate in doubt
Dene observers find mine activity is splitting herd migration

by Chris Meyers Almey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 31/97) - The Yellowknives Dene are ringing alarms bells about the threat mining activity may pose to the 350,000-strong Bathurst caribou herd.

But their concerns are surpassed by a major fear put forth by Ann Gunn, the territorial government's primary caribou researcher.

Gunn's worry is global climate change.

"It is not something we are going to have to wait a hundred years for ... we will see the effects in the next 10 or 15 years," Gunn says.

"Global warming is there already," she adds. "This is a real step into the unknown ... this is something to be really worried about."

Already, scientists believe global warming -- brought about by increased level of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by fossil-fuel emissions -- is altering the climate of the Mackenzie Basin and pushing the tree line further North.

Measurements suggest the average temperature of the Arctic has risen 1.5 C over the last 100 years -- three times the global rate.

Gunn says as the North gets warmer there will be more snow and more bugs. More snow means food will be buried deeper in winter and walking in it drains energy, which means the caribou need even more food.

The bugs add to the misery of the caribou.

The Bathurst caribou herd sometimes obliterates the landscape when it moves -- becoming a moving landscape itself, with tens of thousands of caribou walking rib to haunch.

But Fred Sangris of the Yellowknives First Nation land and environment department says there are many factors at play which could cut the numbers of caribou.

He hammers home the point with a well-known piece of modern history.

He compares the visit by the herd to Yellowknife a few years ago -- Prelude Lake was dotted with hundreds of caribou -- with the once great herds of bison thundering across the Prairies.

But the plains buffalo were brought to the brink of extinction in a matter of decades through over-hunting

"There is no comfort in numbers," Gunn agrees.

Sangris outlines some of the threats the caribou face, such as wolves, forest fires, acid rain -- and mining.

Sangris says he worries that thousands of caribou could tumble into an open-pit mine and die.

Sangris says the greatest fear right now is that the last great autumn migration of the Bathurst caribou herd might already have taken place.

That's because for the past two years, the herd has split in two at Lac de Gras where diamond mining activity is taking place.

One part of the herd travels as far west to Fort Franklin on Great Bear Lake while another goes to the Lutselk'e area of Great Slave Lake.

"We have been monitoring them for the last two years and they are behaving differently than 20 years ago," Sangris says.

In the Bathurst area gold mine exploration is strong and "exploration is right in he middle of the calving grounds."

Gunn says that Echo Bay has a bulk exploration plant within 25 kilometres of a high-density calving territory in the western part of the herd's turf.

On the east side, excavating for gold is under way at the BHP Boston site.

The calving grounds are also used by the Queen Maud Gulf herd, which calved within a few kilometres of the BHP Boston mine last year.

The Bathurst herd used the whole area over a period of years -- they select different sites annually.

Studies need to be done to find out how many calves are born and make it to adulthood, Sangris says.

Gunn says that the Dene have found over decades that the size of the herd grows and declines and right now is pretty well at it maximum.

The latest data gathered from seven caribou wearing radio transmitter collars that are tracked by satellite shows the herd's movement is in line with what is expected -- for this time of year.

Gunn is confident the seven reflect the distribution of the larger portion of the herd, but when it comes to a smaller scale, she can't really say.

The Dene are on the ground and see what is happening, she says. "I don't dispute what they see ... it does raise worrisome signals to me."

Sangris says the calving groups should be given some level of protection, but he worries about the involvement of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in such issues.

For one thing, DIAND takes mining royalties and promotes mining, but it also promotes protected areas, he says.

One other major fear Sangris outlines is that someday Lac de Gras could be drained -- it's about 50 kilometres long -- so diamond pipes could be mined.

As this lake is the headwaters for the Coppermine River, that would have a drastic effect, he notes.