Manitoba’s efforts to champion its critical mineral sector may be putting one of the province’s most iconic species at risk.

During the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto earlier this month, Manitoba doubled down on its critical mineral commitments as it revealed the latest round of funding distributed under the Manitoba Mineral Development Fund. Critical minerals have been dubbed by the federal government to be the “the building blocks for the green and digital economy.”

Among the $3.3 million in mineral development funds announced was a $300,000 grant to nickel mining company NiCan Limited to support “ongoing drill exploration” inside Grass River Provincial Park in northern Manitoba — a park the government describes as “a place where woodland caribou thrive, and where wolves, moose, bear and wolverine roam the lush forests.” 

But according to environmental group The Wilderness Committee, NiCan’s mineral claims don’t just fall within park boundaries — they also overlap the calving, rutting and summering grounds for a herd of threatened boreal woodland caribou.

Four caribou, three looking toward the camera, on a snowy road in a forest
Boreal woodland caribou have been listed as a threatened species both provincially and federally since the early 2000s. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

“The Manitoba government is paying a company to bulldoze a provincial park and bulldoze boreal caribou habitat,” Eric Reder, director of The Wilderness Committee’s Manitoba field office, said.

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government confirmed the mineral exploration company “has been issued a provincial park permit for a fly-in only drilling program,” adding the permit did not include building roads or trails, “there is no existing use of heavy equipment like bulldozers” and that industrial activity must stop if caribou are observed anywhere within 500 metres of an exploration site.

“Parks mining exploration permits are issued annually and scrutinized to ensure exploration operations are sustainable and compatible within parks settings,” the spokesperson wrote, noting Grass River Provincial Park is classified as a natural park with land-use categories for backcountry, recreational development and resource management use.  

Threatened boreal woodland caribou habitat in Grass River Provincial Park overlaps with mining hotspot

Boreal woodland caribou have been listed as a threatened species both provincially and federally since the early 2000s. They’re sensitive to habitat disruption and tend to steer clear of human activity and industrial developments, which are widely recognized as the primary cause of caribou population decline

The Naosap–Reed herd, whose range includes Grass River Provincial Park, is among Manitoba’s most high-risk populations. More than half of the herd’s habitat has been lost to wildfire or human activity over the last 20 years.

That’s in part because the Naosap–Reed caribou traverse Manitoba’s lucrative nickel belt — a geological formation known for its extensive critical mineral deposits, including nickel, copper and zinc. 

Map showing Grass River Provincial Park and mining claims
Mineral claims in Grass River Provincial Park in northern Manitoba overlap with calving and summering grounds for threatened boreal woodland caribou. Map: The Wilderness Committee

The region has always been a mining hotspot for Manitoba, but as the province invests in building its critical mineral sector with the goal of providing the resources needed for an economic shift away from fossil fuels, mineral exploration in the area has been on the rise. Nickel is used in electric car batteries and solar panels.

“The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are occurring together. Everyone is saying that you can’t do one without the other, you need to fix both of them,” Reder said. “Bulldozing species habitat — caribou habitat — so that you can fix the climate crisis doesn’t fly.”

Less than half of Grass River Provincial Park is listed as intact

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s boreal caribou recovery strategy, caribou need large, undisturbed tracts of forest, rich in old-growth trees, lichen, muskeg and peat moss to survive. Woodland caribou are known to avoid clearings and roadways — which leave them more vulnerable to predators — and to steer far clear of human activity. 

For herds to recover and become self-sustaining, the federal government has established that 65 per cent of the caribou’s range — the area they will roam over the course of a year — must be left undisturbed. 

Just 48 per cent of the Naosap–Reed range around Grass River Provincial Park is currently intact.

We’re covering energy on the Prairies
The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.
We’re covering energy on the Prairies

According to collaring data compiled between 2009 and 2012 (funded in part by Hudbay Minerals as part of a proposal to mine within Grass River Provincial Park), NiCan’s claims fall on caribou calving, rutting and summering habitat.

Manitoba government promised caribou action plan

In 2012, the federal government tasked provinces with developing action plans to help recover their caribou populations. Manitoba committed to a recovery strategy in 2015, promising population studies and management plans for each of its 15 herds by 2020.

Last year, the province doubled down on its promise by signing a conservation agreement with the federal government that aimed to have all management plans and population reports complete by 2025. As a high-risk population, the Naosap–Reed herd range plan and population report was due in 2023. Environment Canada said the province has still not produced a draft range plan.

A security camera, signs and a gate outside a mining exploration site in Nopiming Provincial Park
According to The Wilderness Committee, there are 681 mining claims in 16 Manitoba parks, meaning conservation and industry often overlap. Photo: Shannon VanRaes / The Narwhal

“The province is continuing its work to complete management unit range plans for each of the nine boreal woodland caribou management units as per this agreement,” a spokesperson for the Manitoba government said by email in response to questions from the Winnipeg Free Press and The Narwhal.

“The Manitoba government did not fulfill their legal obligation,” Reder said. “Despite asking the government to act on caribou, we haven’t seen it. We have a new government, we expect that they are going to adhere to the federal Species At Risk Act and restart the work on action plans for caribou.”

Hundreds of mining claims staked across Manitoba provincial parks

In the meantime, mining activity has continued in Manitoba’s parks. According to Reder, there are now 681 mining claims in 16 parks — and that number has climbed since the New Democratic Party was elected last October.

Mineral exploration is allowed in approximately 10 per cent of provincial park lands — in areas zoned for resource management or recreational development — provided it doesn’t interfere with the park’s other purposes. 

In the case of Grass River, 99 per cent of the land is open to industrial activity, but one of the park’s purposes is to “preserve … habitat for the threatened woodland caribou,” according to the park management plan

Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act generally prohibits destroying, disturbing or otherwise interfering with endangered and threatened species’ habitat, but includes some exemptions for developments licensed under the provincial Environment Act.

Because NiCan’s project is still in an exploratory phase, it’s not required to apply for an Environment Act licence, and it’s unclear whether the Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act applies. 

Mineral exploration in provincial parks is regulated by work permits, issued by parks staff. Those permits, and the conditions they set out, are not publicly available. 

“Mitigation recommendations are provided from the wildlife branch to the permitting authority and are site-specific depending on the location and type of activity proposed,” a spokesperson for the Manitoba government wrote by email, noting recommendations could include buffers around important habitat or restrictions on the timing of some work. The spokesperson added the wildlife branch tracks disturbance footprints to determine the cumulative disturbance footprint of mining and other human activity.

“Wildlife staff are consulted annually by Manitoba Parks before issuing a permit to ensure minimal impact to all wildlife, including caribou,” the spokesperson said. “Permits contain requirements to follow wildlife guidelines, including monitoring for wildlife movement near exploration sites and reporting this information to wildlife staff.” 

“Measures such as minimizing ground disturbance and trail development, minimizing sound disturbances, and site mitigation and restoration after work is complete are also important aspects of park permit requirements.”

As the new Manitoba government prepares to rewrite its critical mineral strategy, Reder hopes to see a focus on climate impacts — including habitat disruption — written into the plan. 

“We need to see a transition away from mining in parks,” Reder said. “There’s got to be a path forward for caribou, for protected areas, and there’s got to be a path forward for the mining community.”

Updated on March 13, 2024, at 3:13 p.m. CT and 4:01 p.m. CT: This story has been updated to include written responses from the Manitoba government sent after publication.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Feds propose to protect critical spotted owl habitat 1,000 times the size of Stanley Park

Twenty-one years after the spotted owl was listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, on Thursday the federal government released a proposed recovery...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a big story. Sign up for free →
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'