More than any other human activity, mining has been the impetus for industrial development of wilderness areas in British Columbia. Some of the most immediate and extreme impacts of mineral development are felt by wildlife.
At the exploration stage, impacts range from habitat disruption through road construction and attendant hunting and poaching to pollution impacts from abandoned fuel.
The construction or expansion of a mine in a previously wilderness location is invariably the source of significant ecological disruption. Typically, a project might include major new power corridors and roads, in addition to the pits, mills, waste rock and tailings dumps, holding ponds and so on of the mine site itself.
Caribou are an example of the potential threats posed by inapproproiate mineral development. Woodland caribou have declined or disappeared over much of their former North American range, and their numbers have dropped over most of southern BC. Research has shown that road construction leads to increased predation of caribou by wolves and hunters and poachers through facilitating access. Even decommissioned roads serve as travel corridors for wolves. At the South Kemess project in northern BC, the use of company vehicles for off-road recreation including harassment of caribou was one of several mine certificate violations reported in 1997.
Impacts on wildlife are also felt by people who depend on them. In the Iskut-Stikine, guide outfitters are concerned about mineral exploration activity that impacts wildlife. Similarly, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation has expressed strong concern about the likley disruption of traplines by the planned Tulsequah Chief access road.
Two principles are necessary to minimize the negative impacts of mineral development on wildlife.
- Exclude mining from wilderness areas vital to threatened or endangered species. A starting point is excluding mining from protected areas. The need for protected areas free from mineral development was agreed to by industry, government, and environmental representatives through the Whitehorse Mining Initiative, Leadership Accord. By extension, mining should be minimized in ecologically critical or unique areas not yet formally protected.
- Minimize impacts where mines are developed. Adequate study by unbiased researchers is necessary to ensure that potential impacts are properly understood. Depending on the site, options that may be appropriate are air or water access in the place of new road construction, limits on hunting activity by mine staff, and planned decommissioning of access roads.