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Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Environmental Assessment Panel Report

12 Terrestrial Environment and Wildlife

VBNC identified three valued ecosystem components (VECs) for the terrestrial environment, which are considered in this chapter:

  • plant communities, as the basis of wildlife habitat;
  • caribou, considered the most important terrestrial wildlife resource of the area, and a major part of Inuit and Innu diet; and
  • black bears, because they are commonly observed and hunted, and because of their cultural and spiritual importance (VBNC characterized black bears as an umbrella species, whose abundance is an indicator of the health of other species supporting the food chain).

The potential effects of the Project on Aboriginal and recreational hunting are considered in Chapter 14.

The Forestry and Wildlife Branch of the provincial Department of Forest Resources and Agrifoods manages forest resources under the authority of the Forestry Act, and manages caribou and black bears under the authority of the Wildlife Act. The Branch is responsible for forest fire protection and suppression, and the office at Northwest River is the closest office to the Project site. Proposed Project activities are not subject to permit or compliance monitoring requirements related to their effects on plant communities or wildlife, except for revegetation conditions that may be included in the mining lease. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designates plants and animals as endangered, threatened or vulnerable; no such plants or terrestrial mammals have been reported in the assessment area.

12.1 Plant Communities

12.1.1 VBNC Assessment

VBNC identified an assessment area of 35,000 ha for plant communities, roughly coincident with the Claim Block. To provide a detailed description of the plant communities and terrestrial habitat types in the Landscape Region, VBNC mapped a hierarchy of ecological land classifications, based on landforms, climate and vegetation. The primary ecological land classification identified five land regions - areas of terrain that share distinctive regional climates and dominant vegetation types - in the Landscape Region. VBNC derived information about plant communities in the assessment area by using the lowest level of land classification hierarchy, the land type, to provide the greatest level of detail. It conducted field surveys during the summers of 1995-97, and mapped plant communities using air photography.

VBNC identified 17 land types in the assessment area. About 65 percent of the area is forested (mostly spruce, fir and birch, with lichen and sphagnum), although this includes some thickets and tuckamore. About 26 percent of the area consists of rock, gravel, heath or coastal barrens. Most of the rest consists of various types of wetlands. These communities are thought to be relatively stable over long periods of time. Growing seasons are short, and growth and nutrient cycling rates are low. Fire rotation cycles are thought to be about 500 years.

VBNC identified the following potential effects of the Project on plant communities. Physical disturbance and loss would occur due to site preparation, the location of surface facilities and open pit mining during construction, operation and decommissioning. The Project as described would require clearing 753 ha, which would include inundating 25 ha at Headwater Pond and 155 ha at the North Tailings Basin. All of this clearing would occur during the initial construction phase, except for the North Tailings Basin. About 75 percent of the area to be cleared is forested habitat. There are 17 plant communities in the assessment area; clearing would affect, at most, 5.4 percent of any one community. Off-road vehicle traffic could damage additional areas.

Contaminant uptake, in the form of increased metal concentrations, could occur in plants due to external accumulation of settled particulate matter or internalized uptake of metals from soil. Metals could be released during the operation and commissioning phases through liquid effluent, air emissions and dustfall. The potential for releases would be highest during the open pit mining phase. VBNC predicts that projected metal concentrations would have no detectable effect on lichens.

Fire, fuel spills, and the failure of a tailings dam or pipeline are accidental events that could adversely affect plant communities. Fire could affect substantial areas of spruce and lichen forest, although no worst case scenarios were provided. Most Project facilities would be located in valley bottoms, and the area around the proposed mine and mill, port, haul road and airport consists mainly of mixed spruce, fir, birch and lichen forest. Salt marshes are particularly sensitive to oil or other spills, although the most important such marsh, the Gooselands, would not be vulnerable because no fuel storage sites could drain there.

VBNC predicted that ongoing and future activities within the Landscape Region, including mineral exploration by VBNC and others, would have no detectable cumulative environmental effect on the abundance of plant communities.

VBNC has proposed the following mitigation measures:

  • identifying and avoiding sensitive land types;
  • reclaiming land to encourage natural succession of indigenous species, and regularly updating a reclamation plan; and
  • making emergency preparations for firefighting and maintaining emergency preparedness.

Measures relating to atmospheric transport of particulate matter are noted in Chapter 5, Air Quality.

VBNC has predicted the following residual effects:

  • minor (not significant) loss of plant communities;
  • minor (not significant) contamination;
  • major (significant) effects from fire, but a low (not quantified) likelihood of fire.

12.1.2 Government and Public Concerns

The provincial Forestry and Wildlife Branch stated that there would be a need to maintain communication with the Northwest River office in order to ensure effective fire response capability, and to do monitoring and follow-up to ensure the success of revegetation. The Branch indicated that, because of the distance of this office from the site, there would be a minimum one-hour response time.

An expert speaking on behalf of the Innu Nation expressed concern that an increase in the fire cycle could reduce forest area and increase tundra area, and recommended that the Province review the adequacy of VBNC's fire response measures. Along with an expert for the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA), he also recommended that lichens be an integral part of an effects monitoring program, since they are important in the food chain, and as a vector for biomagnification of airborne pollutants.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The loss of some plant communities, and therefore of some habitat, is an inevitable consequence of construction. The proportion of any single plant community lost to Project activities in the assessment area would be low. Reclamation would eventually restore plant cover in much of the Project footprint, although this would not necessarily be the same community that existed before the Project began, nor would it necessarily have the same ecosystem function.

Disturbance could and should be minimized through appropriate restrictions on off-road traffic when the ground was not frozen.

Recommendation 51

The Panel recommends that VBNC develop an environmental protection plan with respect to plant community and terrain disturbance that would

  • identify sensitive land types and avoid them to the greatest extent possible; and
  • restrict off-road vehicle traffic to designated routes as much as possible when the ground is not frozen, limit such traffic to essential monitoring functions, favour the use of helicopters for exploration and isolated construction activities, and restrict off-road use of heavy vehicles to winter.

The Panel considers that if adequate mitigation measures were taken with regard to atmospheric emissions (Chapter 5), Project-induced contamination of plant communities would not have measurable effects beyond the immediate area of Project activities. The Panel therefore does not consider that monitoring lichen for contaminants should be a priority for VBNC. Lichen monitoring for contaminants should occur in the context of the larger contaminant monitoring program recommended in Chapter 7.

The Panel agrees that if appropriate precautions and contingency plans were in place, the probability of Project-caused forest fire would be low, and that the extent of fire damage could be minimized, especially in view of the terrain and vegetation configuration in the Project area.

Recommendation 52

The Panel recommends that VBNC maintain adequate on-site equipment and emergency preparedness to respond to forest fires as early as possible, to minimize damage. These plans should be subject to review and approval by the Forestry and Wildlife Branch of the provincial Department of Forest Resources and Agrifoods.

Particularly during scoping sessions, many Inuit and Innu expressed their concerns about the damage caused by exploration activities generally, including abandonment of fuel caches and exploration equipment, indiscriminate clearing and careless use of off-road vehicles. They regarded these as significant Project-related effects that occurred before this environmental assessment. The Panel notes that the Province amended the Mineral Act in 1995 to provide for greater regulatory control over mineral exploration and has been monitoring mineral exploration in the field since then.

Recommendation 53

The Panel recommends that the Province review the effectiveness of the revised Mineral Act regulations, and of its monitoring activities, with respect to the cumulative effects of mineral exploration on terrestrial and aquatic habitat in northern Labrador, in consultation with the Innu Nation and LIA.

12.2 Caribou

12.2.1 VBNC Assessment

VBNC conducted 22 dedicated aerial surveys of caribou in and around the Claim Block during the winters of 1996 and 1997, and conducted further surveys in 1998. The company also conducted ground surveys in the Claim Block to determine the extent of habitat use, and the timing and location of caribou movements.

The proposed project lies in the range of the George River herd, which covers much of northern Labrador and Quebec. The George River herd is currently the largest in the world, and recent estimates indicate that it numbers at least 675,000 animals. Some biologists believe the herd is entering a prolonged period of decline. The Claim Block, which constitutes less than 0.1 percent of the herd's range, is near the edge of the range and is not used for calving or rutting. It is considered to be good winter range and in some years, especially recently, caribou have wintered in the Voisey's Bay area. In times when the herd's population was low, caribou were rarely observed in the Claim Block and adjacent area. In 1996, 8,000 to 10,000 animals (or over 1 percent of the herd) that had wintered there congregated in the eastern portion of the Claim Block in April, and then passed westward through the Project area during the spring migration to calving grounds. This does not happen every year, and biologists do not consider that caribou exhibit fidelity to the winter range. The Claim Block itself is not considered an important foraging area, but under present conditions it can be an important spring migration route. VBNC believes that when caribou are on the sea ice and the islands in winter, their movements are not directed and they would avoid or detour around a ship track without detriment.

VBNC identified the potential effects of the Project on caribou as follows.

Alteration or Loss of Habitat

Construction would destroy some apparently non-critical foraging and resting habitat, and operations could disrupt localized movements of individual caribou overwintering in the Claim Block. Roads and other Project facilities are not expected to block movement during spring migration, because caribou are adaptable and alternate routes are available. Winter shipping could disrupt movements on landfast ice, but it is not scheduled to occur during late winter and spring staging and migration.

Disturbance Due to Noise and Human Presence

Noise and human presence would disturb the caribou less than alteration of habitat, and would last for a shorter time. Caribou would habituate to routine events.

Accidental Events

Forest fires would destroy habitat, but most forage would not burn or would recover quickly. Fire, along with vehicle accidents, could result in individual mortality.

Based on contaminant modelling (Chapter 7), bioaccumulation of metals in caribou is not considered a potential adverse effect.

VBNC has proposed to minimize disruption of caribou traversing the Claim Block or the shipping route by

  • identifying east-west routes crossing access roads, haul roads and pipelines;
  • constructing graded slopes and ramps at critical road intersections, and minimizing snowbanks from plowing at these points;
  • elevating or burying pipelines at critical crossings, as appropriate;
  • reducing road traffic volume, or even eliminating it during spring migration, and imposing speed limits; and
  • stopping icebreaking in early spring.

VBNC also stated that it would monitor caribou movements through the Claim Block to reduce interactions.

VBNC predicted the following residual effects:

  • minor (not significant) effects from construction and operation; and
  • negligible (not significant) effects from decommissioning and accidental events.

VBNC predicts no adverse population-level effects on caribou as a result of the Project.

12.2.2 Government and Public Concerns

The provincial Forestry and Wildlife Branch expressed concerns about the interaction of caribou with Project infrastructure, especially the airstrip, and suggested fencing or effective visual monitoring as a mitigative measure.

An expert on behalf of the Innu Nation, while not disagreeing with VBNC's characterization of herd biology, questioned some of its interpretations and conclusions. He produced some data suggesting that the Claim Block and surrounding area may be an important part of the herd's range. He did not advance a specific hypothesis about why this might be so, but suggested the matter required further study. He also suggested that lack of site fidelity does not diminish the area's importance, but only makes it more difficult to determine the effect of Project activities on population levels. He also pointed to uncertainties and lack of consensus in the literature on the effects of disturbance and on the adaptability of caribou to disturbance. Finally, he considered that there is not enough information and experience to predict the effects of an icebreaker track on caribou movements on fast ice. At the heart of his disagreement with VBNC was his application of the precautionary principle. He suggested that, as a general principle, the initial hypothesis must be that the project would damage the environment, and that this prediction should only be altered under the weight of opposing evidence.

Innu and Inuit participants stated concerns about potential contamination of caribou through seepage from the tailings ponds and dust generated by the Project. Caribou have died after becoming tangled in wires left on the ground during mineral exploration. Some people considered that caribou would avoid the Project area and become scarcer or less healthy. Winter shipping is a particular concern. Open tracks, which in some conditions would not refreeze quickly, could disrupt migration, or even result in mortality if caribou tried to swim across them, because caribou cannot get back out of deep water. Inuit experts considered that caribou migrate north-south, as well as east-west, on the sea ice.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Panel notes that there was no fundamental disagreement about the factual evidence supplied by VBNC, although there were some differing interpretations of it. The Panel considers that the Claim Block constitutes a small and non-critical part of the range of the George River herd. The Project does not require a major linear transport facility that might significantly obstruct migration or provide greater public access to the herd, as the proposed site is both isolated and compact. The worst case scenario, which the Panel regards as unlikely, is that mitigation measures would be ineffective and the peninsula between Anaktalak and Voisey's bays would be effectively lost as caribou habitat. Even if this occurred, it might not have a measurable population-level effect, especially if the herd was entering a long period of decline, although it might well adversely affect local harvesters. This loss of habitat would be long term but not permanent, especially if reclamation measures were successful.

The Panel observes that the proposed Project activities in the terrestrial environment are not novel or untested with respect to caribou habitat. There are many examples, some decades old, of industrial activities on caribou ranges around the circumpolar world. Such activities can result in stress and displacement, but there are also examples of habituation. The Panel is not aware of any instances of long-term adverse population-level effects that are clearly attributable to industrial activities such as the Project, so long as excessive hunting does not also occur. However, the cumulative effects of several such developments are a concern, chiefly because of the potential for significant habitat fragmentation at the herd level.

Recommendation 54

The Panel recommends that the Province, LIA and the Innu Nation ensure that future environmental assessments of major developments in the range of the George River caribou herd (whether in Labrador or Quebec) pay particular attention to the cumulative effects of range fragmentation.

VBNC has proposed measures to mitigate the effects of linear land development on caribou. These measures include road and pipeline design, and traffic management. The Panel considers these measures appropriate in principle, but they must be rigorously applied and enforced.

Recommendation 55

The Panel recommends that VBNC establish appropriate mitigative measures, as it has proposed to do, with respect to roads, pipelines and other linear facilities. These should facilitate unimpeded travel by caribou and ensure that caribou are kept away from the airstrip, by using fencing if necessary. These measures should also conform to best practices existing at the time they are implemented.

Recommendation 56

The Panel recommends that VBNC develop an environmental protection plan for caribou that would

  • provide for regular monitoring of caribou in the Claim Block, and in adjacent areas when caribou may be congregating or migrating, as appropriate;
  • establish a graduated set of responses to caribou presence and movements near the Project, beginning with limits on traffic speed and volume, up to and including complete cessation of traffic during migration events; and
  • provide for monitoring of and reporting on the effectiveness of VBNC's caribou mitigation measures, and their modification, as appropriate.

It is offensive to Innu and Inuit to see animals harmed or killed by human activity unrelated to hunting, as can happen when there is incomplete cleanup after mineral exploration or related activities.

Recommendation 57

The Panel recommends that VBNC, and its contractors and subcontractors, clean up and remove all equipment immediately after any exploration or other activities occurring anywhere outside fenced-in Project operations, whether within the Claim Block or elsewhere in northern Labrador.

The Panel considers that, due to insufficient information, it is impossible to be certain about the effectiveness of proposed measures to mitigate the effects of winter shipping on caribou. The Panel recognizes that while VBNC's predictions of minor and negligible effects at the population level may be correct, harvesters might experience adverse effects and winter shipping could directly cause some caribou mortality. Movements of caribou on sea ice, and the behaviour of caribou in response to shipping, require further study.

Recommendation 58

The Panel recommends that VBNC and LIA, as part of the shipping agreement, develop a program to monitor and minimize the effects of winter shipping on caribou.

The Panel notes the absence of a formal herd co-management mechanism that could be used to evaluate Project effects in the context of the many other factors affecting caribou abundance and health, and to coordinate appropriate responses to such effects. These are matters of legitimate concern to other users of the George River caribou herd.

Recommendation 59

The Panel recommends that the Province, LIA and the Innu Nation enter into co-management arrangements for the George River caribou herd with the Government of Quebec and Quebec Aboriginal users.

12.3 Black Bears

12.3.1 VBNC Assessment

VBNC selected the Landscape Region as the assessment area for black bears. It used radio-telemetry to establish den locations and home ranges as a basis for understanding habitat use and estimating abundance and distribution. Actual field studies were limited to an area of 1686 km² around the Claim Block.

The Project is situated in black bear habitat, and there are active dens nearby. Based on its bear count within the Reid Brook area, VBNC estimated a density of 0.45 to 0.52 bears per km2 in the Reid Brook Valley, the lower Ikadlivik Brook Valley and the Kogluktokoluk Brook Valley, forested areas that provide the prime feeding and denning habitat in the Landscape Region. These relatively high densities (similar to those reported in parts of Alberta and Montana) may have occurred because bears were attracted to human activity at VBNC and other exploration camps. Densities outside of these areas are thought to be much lower. VBNC estimated the population of the entire Landscape Region at 2,200 black bears. Captured bears were in good physical condition. VBNC characterized the population as abundant and stable.

Mineral exploration in recent years has led to more encounters between people and black bears, and it is estimated that mineral exploration companies killed at least 50 bears in 1995 and 1996. This constituted a large proportion of the sustainable annual kill. During the same period, VBNC itself reported more than 50 incidents of bear capture, most resulting in relocation. Problem kills have decreased substantially since 1996, and in 1998 there were none, as of early November. This is a result of both decreased exploration levels and improved camp maintenance and procedures, including personnel awareness and training. VBNC has conducted workshops with Innu representatives on appropriate procedures for dealing with black bears.

VBNC identified the potential effects of the Project on black bears as follows:

  • Encounters between humans and bears would likely increase due to greater human presence and the possible attraction of bears to food and waste.
  • Black bears might avoid the main areas of noise disturbance, especially the open pit and quarries. As blasting would begin before denning, bears might create or occupy new dens further away. At noise levels above 100 dB (which would occur within a radius of approximately 9 km of the open pit), dens could collapse due to ground vibrations and there could be mortality of young cubs in dens. Up to five known dens could be affected. Noise from local aircraft traffic would cause displacement or short-term avoidance of habitat but is not expected to result in measurable effects on physiology or reproductive success.
  • The Project would disturb less than 3 percent of preferred denning habitat and 0.5 percent of barrens forage habitat. Bears are adaptable and would avoid these areas. This could result in the adjustment of individual home ranges, but would not affect population density.
  • Accidental events such as fire, pipeline failure, dam failure and contaminant spills could destroy habitat, although fire can in some cases renew or enhance bear habitat.

Based on contaminant modelling (Chapter 7), bioaccumulation of metals in black bears is not considered a potential adverse effect. The cumulative effects of increased mineral exploration in the Landscape Region could result in increased encounters between bears and humans, and increased problem kills.

VBNC has proposed the following mitigation measures:

  • identifying and protecting sensitive bear habitat, especially active dens;
  • improving food storage and waste management, improving personnel awareness and training, and equipping personnel working away from camps with warning devices;
  • using electric fencing to enclose Project areas that are particularly attractive to bears, subject to consultation with Innu and wildlife officials;
  • restricting on- and off-road traffic; and
  • recording bear encounters and response actions in accordance with the environmental protection plan.

VBNC predicted the following residual effects:

  • minor (not significant) effects from construction and operation;
  • negligible (not significant) effects from decommissioning; and
  • minor (not significant) effects from accidental events.

12.3.2 Government and Public Concerns

The provincial Forestry and Wildlife Branch acknowledged that existing mitigative measures had already improved handling of problem bears. However, it recommended continued and adaptive bear awareness training, and reporting of all bears handled on site. It also noted that relocated bears will often return, even if taken a long distance away, and stressed the importance of ensuring that individual animals do not become problems in the first place.

An expert for the Innu Nation suggested that population density may have been overestimated. He suggested that the regional significance of the area had not been well established and noted, with the support of an expert for LIA, that population and environmental monitoring of black bears is inherently difficult. He considered that permanent (or long-term) loss of "at least" five den sites, combined with defence kills, is a moderate, not minor, effect because it would change the abundance or distribution of one or more generations of that portion of the population.

Participants advanced differing views about the productivity of the Voisey's Bay area, the area's usefulness as a source or sink, and the population-level effects that might result from increased disturbance and problem kills at or near the site. However, both Innu and Inuit consider that black bears have always been abundant in the Voisey's Bay area, due the good food supply there. They are concerned about problem kills on both conservation and ethical grounds.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Panel concludes that the regional black bear population cannot be well defined based on existing knowledge. The population of the Landscape Region (in contrast to the study area itself) is not well established, as no relevant studies have been done. VBNC suggested that regional population estimates should be the responsibility of the management agency, and the Panel agrees. However, because of insufficient knowledge about the Landscape Region, and because the Project area may have been a "sink" by virtue of its attraction during the study period, it is uncertain how representative the observed densities in the study area are. Consequently, the Panel considers that there is not a sufficient basis for predicting the impact of even a relatively low level of problem kills that might occur even if all mitigation measures were implemented.

Recommendation 60

The Panel recommends that the Province undertake or sponsor further research to establish black bear population definition, abundance, structure, dynamics and critical life history requirements, to ensure the appropriateness and effectiveness of adaptive management strategies for black bears. The Innu Nation and LIA should be involved in the design and conduct of this research, and the research should be subject to the review and recommendations of the Environmental Advisory Board.

It cannot be said with confidence whether bears' avoidance of or attraction to human activity would be a greater influence on the local bear population. It is not clear that moving bears to alternate den locations would compensate for displacing them from dens in the Project area, especially if those dens were in an area of prime habitat effectively lost for the life of the Project. Simply mapping and avoiding sites near the Project would not help if bears also avoided them because of noise. Therefore, increased human activity might gradually deplete the bear population in the Project area. The Panel recognizes that such depletion would adversely affect the rights and interests of Innu and Inuit harvesters.

The Panel also notes, however, that industrial activities such as those VBNC has proposed are not novel in black bear country. There was no suggestion that there is a clear or consistent record of depletion in such cases. The Panel notes with approval that VBNC has substantially improved its operating procedures for avoiding encounters with black bears. The Panel therefore considers that the measures that VBNC has proposed for camp management and bear awareness training are in principle appropriate, but must be rigorously applied and enforced. The Panel believes that a cooperatively developed monitoring program is needed.

Recommendation 61

The Panel recommends that VBNC develop an environmental protection plan with respect to black bears that would:

  • continue to implement and refine measures to improve food storage and waste management, restrict on- and off-road traffic, and train personnel;
  • provide for the use of electric fencing in Project areas, as appropriate;
  • regularly monitor black bear presence and denning activities; and
  • establish a protocol for avoiding bears and dens during Project activities, by relocating, reducing or temporarily stopping activities, as appropriate.