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Environment
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How NWT proposes to protect wildlife from new Whatì road


The territorial government believes an increase in hunting is a "key concern" as it prepares to protect wildlife from the impacts of a new all-season road to Whatì.

Construction of the 97-kilometre road from Highway 3 to the community is set to start in the fall of 2019. The road will also connect the nearby NICO mine project to the highway system.

Caribou, bison, bears, and birds are among the animals whose habitats are jeopardized by the road's construction and its day-to-day use once open.

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A 130-page document published on the territory's public registry this month shows GNWT officials believe both legal and illegal hunting will be one of the biggest problems.

"One of the key concerns associated with [the project] is increased wildlife mortality associated with hunting along the road, greater hunter access from the road into previously difficult-to-access harvesting areas, and extended seasonal access into winter harvesting areas for barren-ground caribou," reads the document, which is a proposed wildlife management and monitoring plan for the road.

"There is concern that this increased access will change patterns of legal harvest in the region and increase illegal harvest such that harvested wildlife populations will experience higher total mortality," the plan continues.

"A comprehensive approach will be required, employing both greater collaboration between GNWT and the Tłı̨chǫ Government at the community level to support community-based programs ... as well as enhanced compliance monitoring."

The document calls for a new renewable resource officer position to be created in Whatì, along with "regular patrols" along the road once it is operational – particularly in the moose and caribou harvesting seasons – backed up by more aerial surveys.

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"If harvest levels are observed to increase towards unsustainable levels once the road is opened to the public," the plan states, a no-hunting corridor may be set up along the route.

According to the document, the Tłı̨chǫ Government is investigating the need for regulations and policies to manage the construction of cabins and design of hunting, trapping, and fishing in the area.

More bison collisions

Vehicle strikes are another significant concern outlined in the document.

While the road is designed to follow the route of old winter roads to minimize habitat disturbance, the risk of increased bison collisions is highlighted.

Citing research conducted in 2016, the document states there were 270 collisions between vehicles and bison on NWT Highway 3 between 1989 and 2015. The majority of collisions happen between August and November, with a peak in October.

"Hunting of the Mackenzie bison population is currently closed following an anthrax outbreak in 2012, but a new road will increase hunters’ access into bison habitat and may increase hunting pressure when hunting is reinstated," says the document.

"Traffic on a new road will also increase the number of bison-vehicle collisions, which is already a substantial cause of mortality on Highway 3."

Community members are also said to have expressed concern that bison will use the road to expand their range north, affecting moose and caribou habitats.

Other impacts include destruction of habitat (ranging from vegetation to bear dens) during construction, and destruction of migratory bird eggs and nests, through to dust emissions changing the soil quality, and the new smells, lights, and noise scaring away animals.

The plan outlines a range of measures workers will take to minimize disruption to animals during construction, and a series of monitoring projects to keep tabs on the welfare of wildlife once the road opens – which is planned for the fall of 2021.

Caribou measures

Caribou, in particular, will be the focus of a range of measures and a collaring program designed to monitor their movements and wellbeing.

The road's route is considered part of the local boreal caribou habitat, but is on the very edge of the Bathurst and Bluenose-East barren-ground caribou ranges.

An entire sub-section of the plan is devoted to caribou protection measures, such as giving the animals right of way, reporting sightings, decreasing speed limits when they are seen, and temporarily suspending traffic if necessary.

Meanwhile, one problem identified by the territorial government is the lack of "a single source of baseline data on wildlife mortalities."

The territory's infrastructure and environment staffs use different systems and keep different records for incidents like collisions with animals, which, the plan states, "makes assessing the true costs to humans and wildlife difficult."

As a result, the territory commits in the plan to designing and launching a new reporting system based on one already in use in Alberta.

Beyond that, the territory proposes to keep conducting aerial surveys for moose and bison every three years once the road is open, and to file two comprehensive reports on nearby wildlife: one when construction ends, and the second five years after the road becomes operational.

The plan, drawn up by infrastructure staff, is not yet final – and has been submitted for review and approval by colleagues at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Bridge spikes

Lastly, the document provides an insight into some of the measures the NWT government uses to manage animals – and how, sometimes, the animals refuse to be managed despite what the plan says on paper.

In a discussion of recent attempts to control animal behaviour, the document outlines how spikes were used in a bid to stop ravens nesting in the overhead trusses of the Buffalo River Bridge.

"The ravens successfully built their nest regardless of the spikes, as the spikes appeared to provide a better foothold for their nest," the document sheepishly notes.

"Work on the bridge had to be delayed until the chicks were fledged."

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