B.C. mine proposed in critical caribou habitat shows how endangered species ‘fall through the cracks’

If the newly proposed Sukunka coal mine follows the same trajectory as nearly every project reviewed under the province’s environmental assessment process, it will be approved even if it is found to have harmful effects on caribou

B.C. is considering a proposal for a new coal mine, planned in the heart of critical habitat for the endangered Quintette caribou herd in the province’s Peace region.

The population of the Quintette herd, which roams the mountains near Tumbler Ridge where the Sukunka coal mine would be built, dropped from an estimated 173 to 74 animals between 2008 and 2018.

In a map submitted to the province by the project’s proponent Glencore, coloured dots indicate how the Quintette herd utilizes the mountain range year round, roaming areas that will be impacted by multiple open pits, roads, a tailings pond and other mining facilities — should the project go ahead.

Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations said it’s frustrating to see a new mine proposed in a region of B.C. where extraordinary measures are being taken to bring caribou back from the brink, including the nation’s costly maternity penning project for the endangered Klinse-Za herd that includes 24-hour armed security for pregnant cows and calves.

Sukunka coal mine caribou habitat

The open pits of Glencore’s Sukunka coal mine project shown in relation to caribou summer and wintering grounds in northeast B.C. The coloured dots and triangles show the location of caribou based on radio collar telemetry data. Map: Stantec

“For us it’s clear cut that the coal mine should not be going forward because you can’t mitigate the effects on the caribou in any way,” Willson says. “That project should be dead.”

But Willson says he has little confidence that the government will stand in the project’s way.

“When you look at the track record of how many projects have been approved that should not have been approved, B.C. does not have a good track record,” he says. “And Canada does not have a good track record.”

Mine will impact caribou herd in new protected area

The mine is located within the boundary of areas newly protected under a 30-year agreement between the provincial and federal governments and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.

The agreement, announced in February, placed interim protections on 550,000 hectares in the mountainous area west of Hudson’s Hope and includes plans for a new 206,000-hectare provincial park.

The new protected areas were designed to bring six struggling caribou herds, including the Quintette, back from the brink in the Peace region, the epicentre of much of B.C.’s oil and gas and fracking development, forestry, hydro operations and mining.

At an announcement for the new agreement that would see members of the West Moberly and Saulteau act as land guardians to protect species, federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson said “we need to do things differently” to ensure development is sustainable.

“This agreement is a model for caribou recovery efforts across this country,” he said at the time.

Yet certain zones within the protected areas include special permissions for mining and allow for ongoing development in endangered caribou habitat.

“You can see pretty clearly how some of the moratorium areas were essentially drawn around projects like Sukunka,” says Tim Burkhart, a program manager at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.


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