The Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs’ Office, participating in a study led by researchers from Simon Fraser University, finds that mining companies are staking claims on future salmon habitats as glaciers retreat.
In the ice-covered transboundary region shared by northern B.C. and Alaska, glacier retreat is creating thousands of kilometres of new rivers that salmon are finding. These emerging rivers represent future habitats for salmon but mining companies are also looking to these areas for the next gold mine. A new study, published in Science maps out these emerging land use conflicts and identifies policy blind spots as well as key opportunities for the stewardship of these nascent habitats.
The paper discovered that of the 114 subwatersheds in the transboundary region with future salmon habitat, 25 had more than 50 percent of future salmon habitat near a mining claim. In addition, more than half of future salmon habitat in Canada has either medium or high mineral potential, an indicator of future potential mining pressure.
The paper was a collaboration among researchers from Simon Fraser University, the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs’ Office, the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station, and Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
“Climate change and other human activities are harming salmon populations in much of their range,” says SFU professor Jonathan Moore, the study’s lead author and head of the Salmon Watersheds Lab.
“Yet in some locations of northern B.C. and Alaska, glacier retreat is creating hotspots of opportunity for salmon, but also of mining pressure. This is an emerging environmental issue.”
This study builds on previous work by Moore and Kara Pitman, a research scientist at SFU.
“Previously, we mapped where and when future salmon habitat would be created with glacier retreat,” says Pitman.
“This builds on that work and is the first time that we have assessed where mining claims or mineral potential overlap with future salmon habitats.”
B.C. mining policy in reform
The Mineral Tenure Act is the B.C. policy that allows mining companies to stake claims on lands with minimal government oversight and without consultation with First Nations. The B.C. Supreme Court recently ruled that the Mineral Tenure Act violated the duty to consult with First Nations rightsholders, and ordered the Province to modernize the Act in the next year and a half.
“These changes can’t come soon enough,” says Naxginkw, Tara Marsden, Wilp Sustainability Director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, a co-author of the study.
“The Mineral Tenure Act not only violates Indigenous rights but also undermines stewardship of ecosystems for future generations.”
Indigenous-led stewardship of changing watersheds
The region is also at the forefront of Indigenous rights and reconciliation. Different
First Nations are advancing Indigenous Protected Areas and land-use plans that are forward-looking, incorporating climate change and holistic perspectives into environmental stewardship.
Marsden noted, “Our Ayookxw, our Gitanyow laws, speak to our obligations to future generations. We are seeing changes in our Lax’yip, our territories, and we are taking action to protect our ecosystems even as they change. Our policies consider climate change, and our new Indigenous Protected Area is in response to salmon finding new habitats as glaciers retreat.”
The paper speaks to the broad opportunity for proactive conservation that advances Indigenous rights.
“With our land-use plans and protections, we are not saying no to industry everywhere, we are saying let’s do this in a good way,” says Marsden.
“This is a globally relevant opportunity to get a lot right—Indigenous rights, meaningful protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, and climate resilience.”
Environmental policies for climate resilience
The paper also illuminates a broad global challenge—as climate change is rapidly transforming the world, environmental policies may struggle to keep pace. For example, risk assessments and habitat protections by current environmental laws generally focus on the current values of ecosystems, but not their future values.
“Climate change is transforming ecosystems around the world,” says Moore.
“Even as there is urgent need to take global action on climate change, this paper also reveals the need to look carefully at environmental laws and make sure that they not only protect habitats of today but also the habitats of tomorrow.”
Moore, Pitman, Whited, Marsden, Sexton, Sergeant, and Connor. 2023. Mining stakes claim on salmon futures as glaciers retreat. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.adj4911
Wilp Wii Litsxw Meziadin Indigenous Protected Area
Taku River Tlingit First Nation Protected Area
Supreme Court decision
Previous SFU research that identified where and when future salmon habitat would be created.
Pitman, K. J., Moore, J. W., Huss, M., Sloat, M. R., Whited, D. C., Beechie, T. J., … & Schindler, D.E. (2021). Glacier retreat creating new Pacific salmon habitat in western North America. Nature Communications, 12(1), 6816. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-26897-2.pdf
Tripartite nature conservation framework agreement
Media Kit (photos and b-roll video)