Drummers play at a ceremony marking the opening of construction on the Whatì all-season road in 2019. Alice Twa/Cabin Radio
NWT environmental officials say pushing forward the opening of the new all-weather road to Whatì has left too little time to complete full caribou range plans.
Writing to the regulatory board, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) says it now only has time to develop an interim boreal caribou range plan in the Wekʼèezhìı region, which encompasses Tłı̨chǫ lands.
That proposed interim plan will rely on existing science and Indigenous knowledge and won’t include fresh consultations, ENR environmental assessment manager James Hodson wrote.
The Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board said it accepted the proposal in a written response last week.
Initially, when the road was being planned, the territorial government committed to developing a caribou range plan for the area of the new, 97-kilometre highway.
“At the time … the projected timeline for road construction was four years. This still allowed ENR to meet its target deadline of April 2022 to complete the Wekʼèezhìı range plan,” Hodson wrote to the regulator.
“However, since that date, the timeline for construction and opening of the road has been accelerated from four years to two years.
“With the scheduled opening now tentatively advanced to November 2021, the range plan would need to be submitted by August 2021, which provides us with only one year to complete the plan.”
Hodson said Covid-19 has made it impossible to carry out meaningful consultation as Elders and harvesters want to participate in face-to-face meetings rather than online video sessions.
“It was also pointed out that even if Elders and harvesters agreed to virtual meetings – assuming they will be drawing or demonstrating areas on a map – it would be difficult to capture their drawings in a virtual context,” Hodson wrote.
“With an advanced opening date of November 2021, combined with the delay in community meetings due to Covid, it is extremely unlikely ENR will meet the timeline required.”
ENR says it will fund the Tłı̨chǫ Government, North Slave Métis Alliance, and Yellowknives Dene First Nation to carry out community meetings about the range plan. The department “is committed to incorporating this information into the range plan as soon it can be shared with us,” Hodson wrote.
A finalized range plan, incorporating the results of community consultations, is not now expected until late 2022 or early 2023 – potentially more than a year after the road opens.