A second exploration company is making plans to work inside Nunavut's caribou calving grounds — this time on the range of the dwindling Bathurst herd.

And once again, it happened with the approval of the Nunavut Impact Review Board, and against the advice of the N.W.T. government.

Last spring Tundra Copper sought, and received, permission to search for copper on the Bluenose East calving grounds. Many in the N.W.T. only learned about it last week during hearings that will see several First Nations communities divide a drastically reduced harvest. 

Also last spring, Crystal Explorations sought permission from the board for a multi-year diamond drilling exploration program at its Muskox Diamond project. The company holds several prospecting permits in western Nunavut, mostly clustered near the shuttered Lupin and Jericho mines near the Nunavut/ N.W.T. border.

But one permit, and the proposed James River Camp, juts into the Bathurst caribou calving grounds.

Herd in decline, harvest bans in N.W.T.

The approval came just as hunters in the N.W.T. were learning that the herd could be down to as few as 16,000 animals — a decline of 96 per cent since 1986. 

Like the Bluenose East, the Bathurst caribou move seasonally between their calving grounds in Nunavut and their winter range in the N.W.T.

Aboriginal hunters in the N.W.T. have faced hunting restrictions on the herd since 2010. Hearings are underway that are likely to see the hunting ban extended to 2019.

In reviewing the Muskox Diamond project last summer, the N.W.T. government advised the Nunavut Impact Review Board not to allow work at the company's James River Camp to go ahead, citing the "difficult harvest management actions… creating hardships in communities that rely on this herd as a subsistence and cultural resource."

But the board approved it anyway.

Helicopter on the tundra

A helicopter lands at a Crystal Exploration site in Nunavut. The company has been given permission to do exploratory drilling on the Bathurst caribou calving grounds. (Crystal Explorations)

"Unlike what many parties are requesting and asking for, the board isn't able to issue a blanket ban on development in these areas," said Ryan Barry, the board's executive director.

Nor can the board approve part of a project while rejecting another part, Barry said. 

By the time Crystal Explorations got approval for its project last fall, there was only time for a small scale reconnaissance operation.

Plans for this year are also on the smaller side. "We're talking about a few tents and a few guys for a few weeks," said Dean Besserer of Crystal Explorations.

But the long-term plan is to find diamonds, and ultimately, mine them.

Calls for greater protection

In issuing its approval for the project last September, the Nunavut Impact Review Board issued an unusual recommendation, one that was also issued when Tundra Copper received its approval to work in the Bluenose East calving grounds. 

Helicopter on the tundra

This year's exploration program will be small, but could lead to diamond drilling at multiple sites. (Crystal Explorations)

It called on the Nunavut Planning Commission to "be aware of the public concerns regarding a perceived lack of protection for caribou and caribou habitat within the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut."

"In developing a Nunavut-wide land use plan, the NPC may wish to consider formalized protection of important caribou habitat, and seasonal restrictions on potentially disruptive activities in these areas to minimize disturbance to caribou lifecycles and Inuit harvesting activities."

It appeared the planning commission was closer than ever to achieving that goal until earlier this week, when Peter Taptuna's government abruptly announced it would no longer support blanket protection for the calving grounds.

The Nunavut government now says projects should be considered on a case-by-case basis, just as they were in the case of the Tundra Copper and Muskox Diamonds projects.