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Proposed Mining Project Threatens George River Caribou Herd Recovery
(posted January - 2014)
By Justin Jones, Editorial Assistant

The Hunting Report has learned of a proposed mining project in the heart of the George River caribou herd's calving grounds. That is the same herd recently closed to sport and subsistence hunting by the Quebec and Labrador governments due to concerns over the herd's ongoing population crash.

Continuing subscribers know The Hunting Report has tracked the ups and downs of Quebec-Labrador caribou herds for more than 25 years. In recent years we've reported often on the decline of the George River herd (GRH), and its impact on the remaining hunting opportunities in that region. All sporthunting for the George River herd in Quebec and Labrador is currently banned, with the assumption that the ban will remain in effect until the herd has recovered sufficiently to sustain sport and native subsistence hunting again.

Now, The Hunting Report has learned of a potential threat to that recovery, a threat that has, apparently, thus far slipped under the radar of the hunting and conservation community. In late November we received word that Montreal-based Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. has proposed an extensive mining project, called the Strange Lake Project, in northern Quebec near the border of Labrador. Though the mine itself is in the traditional range of the GRH, of particular concern is the proposed access road from the coast that would run through Labrador and the GRH migration routes, bisecting their calving grounds. 

As conservationists who care about the future of the species we pursue, we immediately became concerned that human development of this scale in the region could negatively impact the recovery of the George River herd. The herd was once one of the largest free-ranging herds of ungulates in the world, at 776,000-plus animals, but is now estimated to have fewer than 20,000 remaining. 

We contacted Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. about the project, which is still in the proposal stages. We were referred back and forth between their Communications Department and a consultant with AECOM, the consulting firm conducting their impact studies. Neither has answered our questions or returned our phone calls. Quest released a pre-feasibility study on the project in October. The baseline study by AECOM will not be completed until later in 2014, but an official Environmental Impact Assessment is set to commence early this year. Quest will have to seek approval from both the governments of Quebec and Labrador. 

We also contacted the Quebec Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks (MDDEFP), the agency responsible for both development and environmental protection in Quebec. At press time, we had not received any response from them. 

We did speak with Deborah Thomas, Director of Communications at the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation. She tells us that there is currently no official plan in place for managing the recovery of the George River herd. "The provinces are collaborating on a proposed framework for a long-term management plan for the GRH. This would be a starting point for discussions and will seek the input and support of other land users in the development of a long-term management plan for this important herd, including aboriginal users. The management plan would address comprehensive issues facing the George River caribou and aim to help ensure the sustainability of this population." 

As for the Strange Lake Project, she adds, "Should the project be registered for environmental assessment, various wildlife species, including the George River caribou, will be considered."

About the Strange Lake Project specifically, she says, "[Quest] has discussed plans to transport ore with the Newfoundland/Labrador Department of Natural Resources. The road route through Labrador is only one of several options." It should be noted however, that no other possible routes for the transportation of ore were noted in the pre-feasibility study; the only option currently presented is the road across Labrador.

We also spoke with individuals who are monitoring the condition of the GRH. They believe any major development in this region could have an impact on the recovery of the GRH. Steeve Côté, Professor of Biology at Université Laval in Quebec and supervisor of the Caribou Ungava research project, has been studying the herd for years. He has seen a map of the Strange Lake Project and the proposed gravel access road, and he confirms that the road bisects GRH habitat. 

"The proposed road is in the caribou's summer range, pretty much right in the middle of that area. This is where they traditionally are from mid-June to September, and where they are calving," says Côté. The effects of roads on caribou and migration are not completely understood, but he did say, "Caribou are sensitive to a linear disturbance such as a road. Most of the research shows that they tend to stay about five kilometers away from any road." That would translate to a 10-kilometer-wide swath that the caribou would avoid. The Caribou Ungava study has found that the GRH calving grounds are relatively small at present, and Côté thinks that such a road could have a large impact. So far, the Caribou Ungava researchers have focused on how the caribou select their habitat, and they plan to examine cumulative effects (including roads and development) on mortality and calf recruitment over the next few years.

We have no clear indication whether activity in the area associated with the proposed Strange Lake Project has already affected the herd. Quest's Pre-Feasibility Study details extensive surveying and mineral exploration there. From the study: "Considerable effort has already been invested to collect data on both the biophysical and human environments in the study area, at the mine site, along a road corridor of more than 160 km in length and at several sites considered for a new port site." The study also states: "Appropriate mitigation and monitoring plans are already being considered by the project team, dealing with the unavoidable environmental impact of mining, including possible compensation scenarios for any net wildlife habitat loss and project closure reclamation. Quest is emphasizing early project planning and design to minimize any potentially significant effects relative to environmental features and functions. At this time, no major environmental impacts have been identified. This proactive and strategic approach has also helped to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the Strange Lake project."

Tribal populations in Quebec and Labrador are extremely concerned that mineral exploration is impacting the GRH. Seven Aboriginal Nations have formed the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table to respond to the decline of migratory caribou populations. Adamie Delisle Alaku, co-chair of the Round Table, says, "There have been a lot of helicopters roaming around near the calving areas. We would like to supervise these areas where they are doing the exploration."

Delisle Alaku says that they have not yet discussed the pre-feasibility study at the Round Table. "We do not have a stance yet. Everything is on a consensus basis between the Seven Nations, so we need to discuss things openly before we take a position. I am very concerned about any operation, and we have seen negative effects from other mining operations." He says the project would be on Inuit lands. The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation plans to cooperate with Aboriginal peoples on any development. The proposed road may conflict with stated Nunatsiavut land-use plans and may trigger review according to the Labrador Inuit Lands Claims Agreement (LILCA).

The Hunting Report also spoke to Keith Payne of the Newfoundland and Labrador Outfitters Association. He says that he is looking for transparency with mining projects. "We are going to meet with the Department of Environment and Conservation soon, about this and other issues. These projects can take on a life of their own, and we want to know what's involved before too much money changes hands." He has been contacted by one outfitter who is troubled by seemingly inconsistent policies that allow mineral exploration projects in GRH range while banning hunting, supposedly to protect a herd in trouble.

In Quebec, Dominic Dugré of the Quebec Outfitters Federation says his organization has not yet taken a position on the Strange Lake Project. However, they are aware of the proposal and currently gathering information to bring before the membership.

According to Quest's timeline, the project could be underway as early as 2016, well before the hunting ban ends. At The Hunting Report we plan to carefully monitor and chronicle the progress of the George River herd and any development plans that might impact the recovery of one of North America's greatest wildlife treasures. 

In the meantime, we have brought this proposed project to the attention of CIC, currently opposing a similar effort in Africa where a proposed highway development would cross wildebeest migration routes. Dr. Rolf Baldus, an Advisor to the President of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) told us:

"My initial reaction is that it sounds highly questionable to ban hunting in order to allow the herd to recover and then proceed to dissect its range by a road through its traditional calving grounds. There are only very few large migrations remaining on earth. We must conserve them at all cost. Fluctuations in numbers of such populations are natural. Selective hunting is sustainable, even when total numbers are low, provided it is done in a way that is compatible with the social behavior of such herds. A road and other infrastructural developments can, however, have extremely negative effects. 

"We are facing presently the same challenge in the Serengeti in Tanzania. The Tanzanian Government has meanwhile decided that the road should circumvent the national park and not dissect it due to the potential damage this would do to the wildebeest migration. If a poor, developing country can afford this, a rich country like Canada should be able to do the same.

"I think that this is indeed an issue the CIC should take up. I have already forwarded the information we have received from The Hunting Report to headquarters for discussion and possibly a Recommendation at the CIC General Assembly next April in Italy."

We've also alerted John J. Jackson, III, of Conservation Force, which often works in partnership with indigenous populations to preserve open spaces, wildlife and hunting opportunities. And we are also alerting other conservation organizations, including Boone & Crockett Club, Dallas Safari Club and Safari Club International. We intend to freely share any information we gather with any other group concerned with the recovery. We are also placing the details available on Quest's Strange Lake Project, including maps of the project and the George River herd's traditional migration patterns and calving grounds on our website for anyone to access. Stay tuned for more details as they develop.


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