Agnico Eagle not doing its part to protect migrating caribou, says Nunavut government

A wild caribou roams the tundra near Nunavut's Meadowbank gold mine in 2009. According to the territory's Environment department, Agnico Eagle has failed several times to close roads at the mine complex when migrating caribou were nearby. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A wild caribou roams the tundra near Nunavut's Meadowbank gold mine in 2009. According to the territory's Environment department, Agnico Eagle has failed several times to close roads at the mine complex when migrating caribou were nearby. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Nunavut government says Agnico Eagle Mines has reneged on some of its promises to protect migrating caribou near the company's Meadowbank gold mine complex.

According to the territory's Environment department, the mining company has failed several times to close roads at the complex when migrating caribou were nearby. That violates the company's permits to operate and should be investigated, the Government of Nunavut (GN) says.

"This is the fourth consecutive year in which the GN has presented evidence of [Agnico Eagle's] failure to implement the road closure provisions of the TEMP [Terrestrial Environment Management Plan]," reads a letter sent by Jimmy Noble Jr., Nunavut's deputy minister of Environment, to regulators last month.

The Oct. 17 letter, addressed to officials at the federal department of Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) and posted online last week on the NIRB registry, states that the company's promised caribou protection measures, outlined in the TEMP, were "an important factor in the GN's review of this project."

It asks federal inspectors to investigate the issue.

Agnico Eagle Mines
Agnico Eagle Mines

The company, meantime, argues that it's fulfilled all of its obligations.

"We are sorry that the Government of Nunavut (GN) disagrees with the implementation by our team of mitigation measures aimed at protecting the caribou population," wrote Agnico Eagle spokesperson Casey Paradis St-Onge, in an email to CBC News.

"We will continue to discuss with the authorities and local associations in order to find a common understanding of this issue."

'Breach of trust,' government says

The Nunavut government's concerns are focused on two roads at the mine complex near Baker Lake — the Meadowbank all-weather access road, and the Whale Tail haul road, which connects an open pit mine to processing facilities.

Production began at the Whale Tail pit in 2019, the same year production ceased at the Meadowbank mine. The operation at Whale Tail pit continues to use processing facilities at the Meadowbank site, with the two sites connected by a 64-kilometre haul road.

Noble Jr.'s letter says the company's TEMP for the Whale Tail mine expansion project includes a requirement to automatically close the road to traffic if a dozen or more caribou were seen within a kilometre and a half of the road during migration times. Those include the periods from April 1 to May 25, and from Sep. 16 to Dec. 7.

There were several days in 2021, in both the spring and fall migration periods, when roads should have been closed but weren't, says Noble Jr. He cites data included in Agnico Eagle's annual report to support his claim.

"The commitment to automatically close project roads during migration periods is a cornerstone of the project's caribou protection measures and was a key piece of evidence ... to provide assurances that the impacts of caribou would be mitigated," according to a government of Nunavut report on the issue, included with Noble Jr.'s letter.

The report says such a failure to meet the project's requirements "constitutes a breach of trust and undermines the integrity of the environmental assessment process in Nunavut."

It also cites research suggesting the Meadowbank mine project is already disrupting caribou migration and that temporary road closures can work to minimize that disruption. That means that road closure requirements should be "strictly" enforced, it says.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Caribou migration was a key concern highlighted by several organizations during the 2019 review of the Whale Tail pit project. Some argued that the proposed haul road would bisect the animals' migratory route and interfere with their movement.

In another letter to the NIRB last month, Philip Puturmiraqtuq, chairman of the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO), said that is in fact happening along the all-weather access road. He says there are "daily complaints" from local elders and hunters who have seen caribou turning back instead of crossing, due to "traffic nonstop" along the road.

"This will never go away especially towards our wildlife which our people depend on and [Baker Lake] tends to become a centre of wildlife harvesting ever fall season," reads' Puturmiraqtuq's Oct. 12 letter.

Noble Jr. calls the HTO's observations "clear evidence of the barrier posed by the [all-weather access road] and the traffic on it."

The HTO is asking for a seven-day closure of the road "till caribou have all crossed," and Noble Jr.'s letter says the territorial government supports that request.

Government of Nunavut officials declined an interview with CBC News.

Paradis St-Onge says in her email that Agnico Eagle will "continue to discuss with the authorities and local associations in order to find a common understanding of this issue."

"In this spirit of collaboration with our stakeholders, we will not comment further on this file in the media."