SOURCE: The Narwhal

DATE: August 15, 2019

SNIP: A proposed road connecting Yellowknife to the Arctic Coast — cutting deep into caribou calving grounds while crossing 640 kilometres of thawing permafrost — has leapt closer to reality, with $61.5 million in new funding pledged this week from the federal government and the government of the Northwest Territories.

The road, first proposed in 2012 by MMG Limited, a multinational mining corporation whose major shareholder is the Chinese government, aims to open up remote areas to mining that would otherwise be too expensive to reach. So far, only small pockets of land close to Yellowknife and existing highways have been economically available for most mining.

But biologists are worried about the impacts of the potential road and its associated development on the Arctic’s vulnerable land and marine ecosystems. The road could see nine new mines developed in the range of the Bathurst caribou herd, which is already in steep decline.

“Strategic investments in infrastructure — road, energy and communications — would lower the costs for exploration and development, and provide new opportunities for mines that have significant operational requirements for infrastructure,” a backgrounder released by the government of the Northwest Territories explained.

There are no communities along the road’s proposed route and Northwest Territories MLA Kevin O’Reilly said the only purpose is “to facilitate mineral development.”

The proposed road would cut into the heart of the range of the Bathurst caribou herd, which extends straight north from the northern edge of Saskatchewan to the Arctic coast and eastward across the north side of Great Slave Lake. The vast majority of that area is either sparsely populated or uninhabited, but two decades of heavy mining exploration activity has been blamed in part for the herd’s precipitous decline.

From a population of nearly half a million in the mid 1980s, the Bathurst caribou plummeted to around 8,200 animals by 2018 — a decline of 98 per cent in a generation.

“You need to consider the cumulative impact of building what’s being self-proclaimed as a basin-opening road — in terms of the many offshoots that will happen, the many mines that will open up, the traffic being generated from those mines, including the traffic in the marine environment from ships,” Laforest said.

If the road corridor goes ahead, there would be 12 active mines in the Bathurst caribou range (up from three diamond mines already in operation). Aside from the mines themselves, the local roads and camps that connect them would hum with activity as supplies, ore and workers come and go. The full impacts of mine development on caribou — in terms of land and water disturbance, noise, dust and other kinds of habitat degradation — are still being studied.

The main road — let alone its spur roads, mines and port — would also have consequences for the herd.