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Caribou battle brewing between Canadian First Nations and mining interests

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

A fight over exploration on the traditional territory of the White River First Nation in Canada's northwestern Yukon territory is about to heat up. First Nations leaders want the Yukon Supreme Court to stop any kind of development in the area. They worry any such activity could threaten the fragile Chisana caribou herd, a designated species at risk.

The herd was part of a unique recovery program near Beaver Creek, which is on the Yukon-Alaska border. The herd is small, with a population of about 700 animals. A government study says its population declined rapidly during the 1990s from around 1,800 in 1989 to below 400 in 2001.

To save them, government biologists captured and transported pregnant cows to a wilderness maternity ward. After calving, they released them back into the wild when the animals were old enough to be able to outrun predators.

Company given go-ahead to explore region

The herd ranges in an area near the White River First Nation. Now, the Vancouver-based mining company Tarsis Resources wants to look for minerals in the area.

The Yukon government is allowing it, despite recommendations to the contrary from the territory's environmental screening agency.

The chief of the White River First Nation, Charlie Eckland, said the company's move will impact the herd.

"We're going to introduce a project that involves trenching, helicopter traffic. It affects how that herd moves," he said.

Eckland said the First Nation won't take the matter lying down. It has asked the Yukon Supreme Court to stop the project.

A date for the case has yet to be set.

The Yukon Government and Tarsis Resources declined to comment.

The dispute is the latest in a long line fights over mining development on First Nations territory. It's raising questions about the ability of mining companies to work with certainty in the Yukon.

Mike Kokiw, the president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, said it doesn't have to be that way.

"Our awareness of the environment, our awareness of species, the technology used, [and] the size of the footprints are miniscule in the way business used to be done. I think a lot of people have the perception that both mining and the environment are polarized. Well, they're not. They're the same issue. Mining has a lot to do with the environment," said Kokiw.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.