The territorial government is petitioning one of its own ministers over proposed measures to protect caribou along the new Whatì all-season road.

The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board gave plans for the road a conditional green light in March, but attached a list of measures to be completed before the road can open.

Several of those measures are designed to help preserve boreal caribou, a threatened species in the NWT whose habitat the road will cross.

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The final decision to approve the project rests partly with Louis Sebert, the NWT’s minister of lands. Sebert is in the interesting position of deciding whether to approve or reject a project for which his entire government is listed as the proponent.

“We represent the Government of the Northwest Territories in its role as proponent of the project,” reads a letter to the minister from Michael Conway, the Department of Infrastructure’s regional superintendent for the North Slave.

“While we are supportive of the intent of the recommended measures in the report,” says Conway, referring to the review board’s final report on the project, “we would like to note that we have concerns with the timing implications associated with Measures 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3.”

Those measures are:

6–1: Implement a recovery strategy for local boreal caribou, including monitoring of the harvest, the habitat, and predator levels.

6–2: Set up a temporary no-hunting corridor along the route of the road before it opens.

6–3: Find a way to offset the caribou habitat lost to the road by providing new or improved caribou habitats, equal in area to the length of the road plus 2.5 kilometres of “buffer” on either side of it. 

Conway warns the minister that implementing the above measures to protect caribou may significantly delay the opening of the road, not least because the territorial government must work with other parties to get them done.

He also expresses concern about the 2.5-kilometre buffer used to calculate the amount of habitat offset required, saying the figure is “non-industry standard.” The GNWT had initially suggested 500 meters on either side of the road instead.

Conway says the 2.5 km figure means trying to offset a far greater area of land on behalf of caribou. That, he writes, “could result in costs greatly exceeding those that were estimated for the project, and may therefore render the project unaffordable.”

‘Fill the void’

On the same day, senior officials at the territorial lands office and CanNor received a letter from the North Slave Métis Alliance decrying a lack of funding to adequately participate in the road’s environmental assessment.

The alliance’s letter requests money to employ more staff, in part to review whether there will be a significant adverse impact on caribou – “notably in relation to NSMA members’ Aboriginal right to hunt them.”

The NSMA’s letter also questions why the territorial government as a whole formed the project’s proponent, rather than just one department, saying this created a “lack of transparency.”

Ordinarily, individual GNWT departments can directly ask questions of a proponent and provide independent feedback throughout the review process. This time, they could not.

Even the review board, in its March report, said this “limited the availability of evidence and expertise from GNWT departments about potential impacts, concerns and mitigations on issues within their respective mandates and jurisdictions.”

The review said this absence was most keenly felt regarding the welfare of boreal caribou, as no experts from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were able to provide input.

“The review board has had to rely on other organizations outside of the GNWT which tried to step up and provide information on subjects within the mandate of expert GNWT departments,” the board wrote in March.

“For example, the Wekʼèezhìı Renewable Resources Board and North Slave Métis Alliance provided particularly useful evidence on wildlife that, in effect, helped to partially address the void left by the lack of direct participation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”

Approval from Sebert and the Tłı̨chǫ Government is the final step before construction of the all-season road to Whatì can go ahead.