Mining project in caribou habitat fails to get green light from Quebec environment agency

The Quebec government plans to move the threatened caribou in question to a zoo in Saint-Félicien, despite criticism from environmental groups.

Quebec government plans to move threatened caribou population to zoo, despite criticism

The number of woodland caribou near Val-d'Or has dwindled to about 15. (Parks Canada)

Quebec's environmental review agency won't give the go-ahead for a proposed gold and copper mine southeast of Val-d'Or, saying that the woodland caribou in the area are too vulnerable.

The Akasaba Ouest mine project is being spearheaded by Agnico Eagle, a Canadian mining company operating since 1957.

The caribou in the area are considered "threatened" by the Canadian government. While between 6,000 and 9,000 remain in the province, the number near Val-d'Or in northwestern Quebec has dwindled to about 15.
The mine project, called Akasaba Ouest, is being spearheaded by Agnico Eagle. (Radio-Canada)

The environmental review agency, known as the BAPE, released a public report Friday saying that in another location, there would be no problem with the Akasaba Ouest project.

The report even went so far as to say that the company had clearly made an effort to reduce its environmental impact —but with this specific caribou population, the risks to the habitat are just too great.

It's important to note, however, that the BAPE's decision is not final. The province could choose to move forward with the plan despite the agency's concerns.

Sending caribou to the zoo

The Quebec government is fully aware of the dwindling population in the Val-d'Or region, and has a plan in place to save the herd by relocating it 400 kilometres away to the Saint-Félicien zoo.

The Saint-Félicien Zoo is a complex where large North American mammals wander free. (St. Felicien Zoo website)
The zoo is a 485-hectare complex, located north of Quebec City near Lac Saint-Jean, where large North American mammals wander free.

Many critics, however, say the government should focus on preserving the caribou's habitat instead of sending the animals away.

"The idea of moving a herd of caribou in order to protect the animals—that's not the way to protect a natural population. For example, to protect a population, you need to protect its habitat," said Chantal d'Auteuil, director of the Quebec association of biologists.

Mysterious deaths at Saint-Félicien

Action Boréale de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue, an environmental group dedicated to protecting forests and greenspace, is also denouncing the government's decision.

The group's president Henri Jacob told CBC that in 2015, nearly an entire herd of caribou at the same zoo mysteriously died. The deaths of 19 of the zoo's 21 caribou in a two-week span had biologists scratching their heads.

In the face of public criticism, Quebec Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks Luc Blanchette is standing by the move.

Quebec Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks Luc Blanchette is defending the decision to move the caribou to a zoo. (Radio-Canada)

"We have not hidden our intentions. The work we did was done internally by internal experts," he said.

He said the transfer is the best way to ensure the survival of the remaining caribou, and to educate the public about their plight.

The move is slated to happen in 2018.

New study needed, says BAPE

In its report, the BAPE warns against the government plan to move the caribou until further research is conducted.

The environmental agency wrote that it would be "premature to conclude that it would be impossible to restore the population," without an extensive study.

They advise that the government should hold off taking "exceptional measures" until a group of independent experts determine whether or not the damage done to the population levels is in fact "irreversible."

Fifty caribou are necessary to ensure the stability of a herd, according to the province, but the Val-d'Or herd has not had that many since 1983.

With files from Radio-Canada and The Canadian Press