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In 1976 Nahanni National Park was established then was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. In 2006, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommended that Canada protect the entire South Nahanni Watershed in recognition of its globally significant values. Nahanni National Park was expanded by 25,000 km² to become Nahanni National Park Reserve in 2009. This was the result of a collaborative effort between the Dehcho First Nations, government and non-government organizations including CPAWS, and thousands of concerned Canadians. 

Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve was established in 2014. In August 2012, the Sahtu Dene and Métis of Norman Wells and Tulita, NT reached an agreement with Parks Canada to establish Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve within the Sahtu Dene and Métis settlement region.

The Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserves now protect 93%- over 35,000 km² of the South Nahanni headwaters and watershed. The area encompasses diverse landscapes and provides habitat for a rich variety of vegetation and wildlife. Over 700 species of plants, 300 species of mosses and lichens, 42 species of mammals including mountain woodland caribou, grizzly bears, dall sheep, and seven bat species, and nearly 200 species of birds inhabit the watershed. 

Watershed at Risk? Industrial Activity in the South Nahanni Watershed 

Proposed, Permitted, and Potential mines: Mining interests and access roads are prevalent in the mountain valleys adjacent to Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh NPRs. The Prairie Creek mine is permitted for further exploration and development and an access road will be built if funding is secured. The Nahanni Range Road is likely to be improved on the Yukon side of the border and an application from Selwyn-Chihong to upgrade the road on the NWT side would allow for up to 100 trucks per day of ore and supplies, this is pending Environmental Assessment. Roads inevitably bring people, and easier access for exploration and hunting.

Road Management: Governments in most jurisdictions are behind the curve when it comes to managing for the conservation of water and wildlife where roads bring access into otherwise remote areas.  Roads are most often built along geographical corridors that are a financial path of least financial resistance for infrastructure. These corridors are also paths of least resistance for migratory species such as the Nahanni herds of mountain caribou. Road planning in the north hasn’t included an accounting of impacts to wildlife and the resources required to monitor and manage for wildlife into the future.

Proposed Industrial Projects Impacting the South Nahanni Watershed

Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd. (SCML)

Location: Along the Yukon and NWT border at Howard’s Pass

Minerals: Lead, zinc

Facts: Deposits discovered in 1972, full exploration began in 2005. Construction is pending an environmental assessment for the mine and for the Howard’s Pass Road.

Concerns: Impacts to Headwaters, significant loss of caribou habitat and disruption of seasonal migration. The project is likely to induce the development of other industrial projects.

Yukon Resource Gateway Project Nahanni Range Road Upgrade

Location: The Yukon Resource Gateway Project proposes upgrades of existing infrastructure to two key areas of high mineral potential and active mining in the Yukon Dawson Range and the Nahanni Range. The Nahanni Range Road Upgrade is the portion that will occur in the SNW. The road will be widened to increase industrial traffic where it winds through headwaters and valleys of the greater SNW.

Facts: It is envisioned as an 8-year project that would be jointly funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Yukon and the mining and exploration industry.

The Yukon Resource Gateway Project proposes upgrades of existing infrastructure to two key areas of high mineral potential and active mining in Yukon. These areas include the Dawson Range and the Nahanni Range. The Nahanni Range component of the project involves upgrades to the existing Nahanni Range Road from its junction with the Campbell Highway to the Yukon/NWT border. The proposed project should go through an environmental and socio-economic review, which includes opportunities for the public and stakeholders to share their views and comment on the project.

Source: Yukon Resource Gateway Project, Yukon Government Page

Concerns: This road will have trans-boundary implications, particularly for mountain caribou, the South Nahanni and Finlayson herds move seasonally between the Yukon and NWT, at times occupying Nahanni NPR.

The upgraded road will increase hunting and industrial traffic into the backcountry of the SNW. Coordinated wildlife management between governments and first nations in the NWT and Yukon is needed.

This road poses a significant risk to mountain woodland caribou and grizzly bear populations using seasonal habitats in Nahanni and Nááts’ihch’oh NPRs looms.

Prairie Creek Mine

Location: The mine is located in the “donut hole” found in the western portion of Nahanni NPR. The mine is surrounded by sensitive karst landscapes and features.

Minerals: zinc, silver, lead

Facts: Prairie Creek Mine is now owned by NorZinc Ltd. Exploration occurred at this site as early as 1928, however no product has left the site to date. The mine was given the green light to proceed to a permitting process following environmental assessment of mine production by the Mackenzie Valley Review Board in December 2011. An environmental assessment for upgrade of the approved winter road to an all-season road has been approved. Due to delays in road construction production has been moved to early 2023 and will continue into 2037 when the resources will be exhausted.

Prairie Creek All Season Road

If built, the 170 km road will connect the mine to the Liard Highway and 100km will cut through Nahanni NPR. The road was recommended for approval in 2019 after an environmental assessment. Construction is planned to commence before 2022 if funding is secured. 

Concerns: Water contamination, resident bull trout population in Prairie Creek, disturbance to wildlife, a proposed air strip, and a proposed all-season road travelling through sensitive karst lands.

  • Bull Trout are widely distributed, but in low abundance, throughout much of central and southern NWT. Bull Trout habitat is cold, clean, complex and connected. They require a very specific habitat which can support growth and reproduction. Bull Trout are particularly vulnerable to poor water quality and habitat fragmentation caused by industrial activity. They are aggressive feeders and thus can be easily overharvested. The presence and health of bull trout is an indicator of a high quality water source.

    There is a significant population in Prairie Creek which uses habitat above and below the Prairie Creek Mine site. Will this population of bull trout survive and thrive when the mine goes into production?

    Status: Special Concern (Federal Species at Risk Act List)

    Threats: Industrial activity, infrastructure projects, forestry, climate change, overfishing, off road vehicles

Lened Claim (Cancelled):

Location: Lened is located within the “donut hole” cut from the Náátsi’ihch’oh boundary. This is an area not included in the NPR but which is surrounded by the Protected Area.

Minerals: Tungsten

Facts: This claim was surveyed in 1982, purchased by Playfair Mining in 2006, the lease wasn’t renewed when it lapsed in 2014. These lands will be zoned as Special Management through the Sahtu Land Use Plan and could become a lease again in the near future.

Concerns: The Lened area is important habitat for mountain caribou, and a location of high grizzly bear density. It also hosts a Dall’s sheep population with genetics unique to the mountain range. The Redstone and Upper Nahanni mountain caribou herds use snow patch habitat in the high alpine between the Selwyn and Lened claims during the summer- calving occurs in this area.

  • Dall’s Sheep often reside on the same mountain block for the duration of their lives, they are extremely loyal to their preferred habitat. Dall’s Sheep are sensitive to human activity- they are reluctant to move when roads, mines, and camps are established. Populations can be slow to recover, this may be due to minimal interaction with other groups of sheep.

    Threats: Habitat loss, disturbance, human interaction, disease, climate change

Howards Pass Road

Location: The road starts at km 188 of the Nahanni Range Road, near Tungsten, and extends to the Yukon Border.

Facts: The Howards Pass Road is currently being refurbished to connect the Selwyn Chihong Project to the Cantung mine.

Concerns: This road, which passes inside and outside of both Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh, will host up to 100 trucks per day if production commences at Selwyn. Significant risk of collision, sound and dust disturbance and the likelihood that hunters will find easier access to caribou, moose and sheep pose real threats to wildlife populations. It is also likely that the road will become a main access point for future developments in the watershed especially in the areas left outside of Nááts’įhch’oh NPR.

Zoe Guile
Zoe Guile

Cantung Mine

Location: The Cantung Mine is located just outside the expanded Nahanni NPR and World Heritage Site, and is accessed by road from the Yukon Territory.

Minerals: Tungsten

Facts: Cantung Mine is currently owned by the Government of the Northwest Territories, the GNWT bought the project after the former owner, North American Tungsten Corporation Ltd. went bankrupt. This acquisition also transferred responsibility for mine maintenance and remediation to the GNWT and taxpayers. The mine is currently in care and maintenance, meaning that there is no production but expenditures are required to maintain facilities, water licences, land use permits. Cantung, along with another tungsten mine owned by the GNWT, Mactung, include 113 Mineral Claims and 38 Mineral Leases straddling the border of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment has maintained all of these claims and leases in good standing. It is likely to be purchased by a private sector company before the end of summer 2020.

Concerns: The proximity of Cantung’s tailings ponds to the Flat River ecosystem

Source: (Alvarez and marsal Canada Inc., 2020)

Shannon Moore
Shannon Moore

Climate Change

As of 2009 it was estimated that glacier extent in the park had decreased by 30% over 26 years, this process continues with more glacier loss every year due to warming temperatures. Along with these increasing temperatures comes permafrost thaw leading to landslides and other landscape and ecosystem change. 40 new landslides were counted between 1976 and 2010 in main karst areas within the park.

Severe weather events are also expected to increase with increased warming which could surpass what mining infrastructure has been built to withstand.

Nahanni River Fund

The Nahanni River Fund (NRF) was established in 2005 by the Nahanni River Outfitters Association (NROA) and the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society – Northwest Territories Chapter (CPAWS-NWT).

The NRF allows Nahanni river trippers to make a contribution toward projects that enhance education, protection, and advocacy opportunities in the Nahanni National Park Reserve and the greater South Nahanni Watershed.

The three outfitting companies that have contributed to the Nahanni River Fund are:

Zoe Guile
Zoe Guile