A male caribou. (Black Press file photo)

Retired ecosystems biologist raises concerns about proposed Telkwa coal mine’s impact on caribou

The company says the project could be a net positive on the herd through local restoration efforts

A retired ecosystems biologist says he has concerns about how a proposed Telkwa coal mine could affect local caribou numbers.

Len Vanderstar was part of a Telkwa caribou herd recovery project in the 1990s which the saw a dwindling population (as few as six caribou with no calves observed in 1997) supplemented with 32 animals from the Sustut-Chase herd.

Despite what Vanderstar characterized as a number of people who were very critical toward the plan, it was a success.

The program increased the herd from six in 1997 to 114 recorded in July 2006 and is one of only two successful caribou recovery programs in the country (the other was in Gaspé, Quebec).

READ MORE: B.C. Interior caribou protection area big enough, minister says

At a Jan. 15 talk at The Ark in Telkwa, Vanderstar brought up a number of concerns he has about how the Tenas coal pit, a proposed coal mine located seven kilometres southwest of Telkwa, could negatively impact the herd.

The Tenas pit is one of three coal deposits owned by Telkwa Coal Limited, which is 90 per cent owned by Allegiance Coal and 10 per cent by Itochu Corporation of Japan. The other two (referred to as the Telkwa North and Goathorn deposits) are also located at points southwest of the village.

Currently, the Tenas Project is Allegiance’s flagship project in the area, with a potential mine life of at least 25 years.

Central to Vanderstar’s concerns was the close proximity of the proposed development to a well-known part of the Telkwa mountains known colloquially as the Camel Humps.

He said the location is essential to caribou reproduction.

“These caribou go out and isolate themselves … have their calves and within two weeks all the mommies get together and they all congregate and they usually congregate in the camel humps.”

Vanderstar also said the animal is relatively unique in its preference for selecting habitat for seclusion versus the resources it contains.

“Moose and deer preferentially select habitat for forage supply, that’s why you find them in your backyard,” he explained.

“Caribou preferentially select habitat for avoidance, you could have the highest-quality habitat but if there’s going to be predators there or if there’s human activity there … they will move to substandard habitat because their number one choice is to get away from disturbance.

With that in mind, Vanderstar said there is also the issue of noise from blasting.

He pointed out the proposed Tenas pit is only seven kilometres linear distance from the edge of the camel humps.

“There is no sound barrier,” he said. “When you’ve got dynamite going off in a coal pit what do you think of the sensory disturbance to caribou?”

Vanderstar acknowledged he didn’t have a definite answer, but said the possibility for a negative impact on the local herd was a big concern for him.

He said he would like to see the company do sound modelling for how dynamite reverberates off the geography between the Tenas pit and the camel humps area.

“I would like to see Alliance Coal do it … have them do the blast, and lets see how it funnels up these valleys.”

He noted it would be a relatively easy test to do.

“I’m not aware that they’ve done it and it’s a concern that I’m raising.”

Vanderstar said it was important to note he wasn’t saying the proposed development would spell doom for the local herd, rather that he wanted to see concrete evidence the company had done their homework with regard to caribou populations before they proceed.

“I would like to have the comfort level that there’s some really good work done on this before we start [saying] that yeah this is permissible activity here.”

In response to these concerns, Angela Waterman, Telkwa Coal director of environment and government relations called the provincial environmental assessment process quite robust.

Currently the project is in what is known as the pre-application process, which means the company is having conversations with the relevant ministries — both federal and provincial — on topics ranging from air quality to water to things such as caribou habitat.

Waterman said right now the company is working with government to define the assessment methodology.

This includes working with the relevant decision makers to determine things like study areas for the project’s required environmental assessments.

Currently the provincial Environmental Assessment Office review of the Tenas project is on hold.

The decision was made in September 2019 in response to a request from the Wet’suwet’en — specifically the Cas Yikh house membership, Dini’ze and Ts’ahe’ze.

“Last summer the Wet’suwet’en approached us and said that they were dealing with other matters and asked us to pause the process until April and so we’ve done that,” said Waterman.

The Wet’suwet’en have previously indicated they will need until April 30 before they are able to proceed.

As for things like the impact of blasting on the local herd, that’s something Waterman said will be under the purview of the review.

“The environmental assessment will look at a bunch of things [such as] habitat and the potential for indirect and direct effects,” said Waterman.

She said indirect effects could include things like the potential for sensory disturbance from sound and that modelling of sounds such as blasting and mine machinery are part of the assessment being done. The results of that modelling will be reviewed in the environmental assessment.

Waterman also noted the Tenas Project’s area is out of the Telkwa caribou herd’s core habitat, instead within what is known as connective habitat or “the matrix.”

But Waterman also said the company took the issue of the herd’s well-being seriously.

“Telkwa Coal understands that the Telkwa caribou herd is of environmental and socio-cultural value,” she said.

With that in mind, she said many people working with the company have worked on caribou recovery in the past, such as Sean Sharpe, who also worked on the Telkwa caribou recovery project and is now on the Tenas technical team.

“We have very well-respected caribou experts on our project and we will be working on mitigation measures with the team and the federal and provincial government and key people on the working group such as the Wet’suwet’en,” she said.

Waterman said the company shares the community’s goal of wanting to ensure the environment is protected.

“Folks need to understand where the project is within the regulatory process timeline,” she said. “Some of the questions being asked and comments coming in are premature.

“Everybody is going to get a chance to provide input as to what is the best type of mitigation measures for this herd.”

Waterman ended on a positive note, raising the possibility for the development to actually benefit the herd.

“Aside from having all the right people at the table the project provides an opportunity to have a net positive effect on caribou in terms of what we could do in mitigation which would include restoration and offsetting,” she said.

“Areas that we don’t disturb or [which have] been disturbed by others, there are opportunities to rehabilitate some of those areas and at the end of the day there’s a potential for a net positive effect on caribou.”

Waterman said she thought the project would benefit greatly from what she described as a wealth of expertise in the area on the Telkwa caribou herd, adding the collective knowledge will likely directly or indirectly have a part in the review of the Tenas project as it relates to caribou.

“With so many experts, I would say the EA review is in good hands.”

The Jan. 15 talk was put on by What Matters in Our Valley, which was founded in 2017 by a group of Telkwa and other Bulkley Valley residents who “share a deep commitment to the conservation of our rivers, water, fish, wildlife, air and the quality of life in our exceptional area.”

The group’s current stated goals are to inform the public about the implications of the proposed Telkwa coal mine and to protect the interests of the local environment and economy.

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