Monitoring caribou on Gahcho Kué winter road

Mar 31, 2023

The winter road season is the busiest time of the year as Gahcho Kué mine works to refuel fuel tanks and bring in mining supplies and equipment needed for the coming year.

For Jarrett Vornbrock, Sr. Environmental Technologist, and other members of the mine’s environmental monitoring team, the addition of new caribou monitoring programs has not only increased the time crews spend on the land but also promises to increase the body of knowledge about how caribou interact with the mine and the winter road.

This year, a network of 60 wildlife cameras is helping the team better understand how the caribou interact with the winter road traffic. Jarrett and others spent days assembling the cameras, charging batteries, and loading them with memory cards in the environment lab. Once that was complete, the cameras had to be deployed to the locations identified using traditional knowledge and analysis of caribou occurrence along the 126 km winter road.

The cameras are installed on two metre tall tripods set up in areas where caribou are known to have crossed the winter spur road in previous years. They are motion activated, and almost anything that comes within 30 metres of the cameras will trigger the devices to take five photos, one every second.

The cameras are powered with rechargeable batteries. Each camera is no closer than five metres from the edge of the winter road to ensure they are not affected by traffic or maintenance work, like snowplows. They will be checked once a week by the mine’s environmental team, a contractor or a security patrol that regularly travels the winter the camera program is paired with a weekly distance transect survey of the entire length of the road.

During the distance transect survey, environment officers and the Ni Hadi Xa environment monitor count all of the animals observed on both sides of the road. This survey is expected to enable estimation of temporal and spatial trends of caribou occurrence without the use of radio-collar data.

The cameras and distance transect survey are part of ongoing work to understand how caribou interact with the winter road – which expects to see about 1,600 loads hauled to and from the mine this season. “We are also doing Caribou behavioral studies every day during the winter road season,” said Jarrett.

This behavioral study will see the team observe a caribou herd’s behavior during hauling operations, while also recording the herd’s population and sex makeup of bulls, cows and calves.

The information is documented in the mine’s annual wildlife report to the Mackenzie Valley Land & Water Board and shared with Ni Hadi Xa, an environmental monitoring group comprised of the mine and six Indigenous communities. This is part of Gahcho Kué’s commitment to studying caribou and possible impacts associate to the mine.

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