Yellowknife MLA raises concerns about Tłı̨chǫ Highway's impact on wildlife, infrastructure

·3 min read
Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said Monday he was concerned about environmental protection measures relating to the Tłı̨chǫ Highway that have yet to be approved  (Travis Burke/CBC - image credit)
Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said Monday he was concerned about environmental protection measures relating to the Tłı̨chǫ Highway that have yet to be approved (Travis Burke/CBC - image credit)

The new all-season road to Whatì, N.W.T, is scheduled to open Tuesday, and Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly says the territorial government has failed to prepare the community for its arrival.

In the Legislative Assembly Monday, O'Reilly said there are concerns the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) has not completed its environmental assessment obligations related to the highway, and that at least three plans to protect surrounding habitat have not yet been approved.

Among the outstanding plans: the interim Wek'èezhı̀ı Boreal Caribou Range Plan, the Tłı̨chǫ all-season road wildlife management and monitoring plan and a permit application for boreal caribou and wolf monitoring.

Shane Thompson, the minister responsible for ENR, said the department has been working with its co-management partners to fulfill requirements.

He said the plans O'Reilly referenced were submitted to the Wek'èezhı̀ı Renewable Resource Board in the summer, but made no response on their lack of approval.

O'Reilly told CBC News the department's failure to meet the commitments means Whatì is left without "the framework to properly manage traffic and people along that road to protect wildlife."

O'Reilly further questioned Thompson on a recent ENR report, which he said recommended boreal caribou harvest in the area of the new highway be limited if not completely restricted.

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada
Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

Asked what Thompson will do to address the new all-season harvest access that comes with the new road, Thompson said ENR "is meeting with Indigenous governments and Indigenous organizations on the finding of this report."

Thompson also noted the report O'Reilly referenced concluded that the area around the road could support "some" harvest of boreal caribou and that "we have not seen indication that sustainable harvest levels are being exceeded," though the road hasn't been publicly accessible yet.

Thompson did not respond to questions of whether he would introduce harvest restrictions, but said ENR has hired a renewable resource office in Whatì "to increase harvesting monitoring along the road."

O'Reilly told the CBC that "our government has a legal obligation to make sure that it protects the habitat and I just don't get a strong sense that they're living up to that obligation."

"Boreal caribou are in decline across this entire country," he said. "And what causes that disturbance of their habitat? We've just built a new highway through parts of woodland caribou habitat in this part of the Northwest Territories.

No money for business development

On top of the pending environmental protections, O'Reilly points to a lack of funds in the proposed capital budget for business development in the community and park and campground planning. Without that work, he says the community will be unprepared for an influx of visitors.

"I remain very concerned about the continued failure of this government to adequately plan for new roads, let alone properly maintain the ones that we have," he said.

While O'Reilly acknowledged the support the new highway has received from the Tłı̨chǫ Government and "that it will undoubtedly bring some benefits," he remained critical of the planning put into the all-season road prior to its opening.

"Any time you put a road through a relatively new area, there can be different things happening that were unanticipated," he said. "We don't have the plans in place to properly monitor and manage those activities and that's disappointing."

Thompson could not be reached for further comment.

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