Tag Archives: wildlife

Wildlife conservationists sue over proposed border wall

A conservation group and an Arizona congressman have filed what they say is the first federal lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

It calls for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to put together a report on the environmental impact of construction of the wall and expanded patrolling operations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

It also asks a judge to find that DHS has violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to make an environmental assessment since 2001. DHS said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in Tucson by the Center for Biological Diversity and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a southern Arizona Democrat.

Wildlife conservationists say the wall would be detrimental to rare animals such as jaguars and ocelots that are known to traverse the international line and are listed as endangered species.

“What we need is a thorough analysis and some real science to determine just how much damage has been done and how much more would be done by the proposals that are on the table now,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Prior legal challenges to border fencing have been unsuccessful. The Southwest border already has roughly 650 miles of fencing in various forms, along with underground sensors and camera towers.

The latest lawsuit is broader than others and considers the larger implications of more border patrol operations, not just the wall, Serraglio said.

Trump has promised to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it, though Mexico has refused.

The push to add 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and to increase overall border surveillance operations have come at time when illegal crossings are at historic low.

Jane Goodall: Magic of nature revealed in ‘Born in China’

The magic of nature and its wildlife often takes great patience for the humans who want to revel in it. Disneynature’s new film, Born in China, is a perfect example of that.

The documentary is a little over an hour but it was shot over three years.

Dame Jane Goodall, an ambassador for Disneynature, said the imagery was breathtaking and shows the personality of the multiple species captured.

“These photographers wait year in and year out and so they’re able to show the characters of these animals,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “And people say, ‘Oh, Disneynature gives animals a character.’ No, the animals have their own character.”

The film also shows another side of China. Viewers see a snow leopard hunt in terrain unfit for most mammals, a mother giant panda with her cub, and raucous golden monkeys jumping on high forest trees, sending the branches crashing to the ground as they chase and play.

“(People) think of Beijing and Shanghai and glitz and all the rest of it,” Goodall said, “but China is huge and vast and some of these landscapes that are captured in this film are truly spectacular.”

The documentary, Disneynature’s seventh theatrical release, is out April 21, the day before Earth Day. John Krasinski narrates but Goodall has done her part to promote the ambitious project, directed by Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan.

A portion of tickets sales from the film’s opening weekend will benefit the World Wildlife Fund.

Goodall, 83, has studied chimpanzees for 55 years in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. She has worked for decades on conservation and animal welfare issues. China, she said, should be commended for its work protecting pandas and snow leopards.

Of President Donald Trump’s administration, Goodall said: “I think any administration that is cutting back on protecting the natural world is very disturbing. The same thing’s happening in the U.K. and many other parts of Europe. And of course in Africa, it’s a little bit different, but there’s African presidents who welcome big corporations coming in from outside and they’re sort of selling their natural resources in return for roads or hospitals, and all of this is pretty grim for the future.”

Yet Goodall remains hopeful, especially when it comes to kids. The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots Program, which encourages young people to become stewards in their communities, now operates in 98 countries, for instance.

“The passion and the energy of young people,” she said, “once they understand the problems, they’re empowered to take action.”

On the Web

nature.disney.com 

Nature lovers blast Walker’s plan to end DNR magazine paid for by readers

Twenty years of back issues in Jim Stroschein’s attic attest to his love of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ publication. Since 1919, the DNR magazine has featured stories and photos highlighting Wisconsin’s natural splendor, from where to hunt, fish, hike and camp to what it’s like to a own a north woods cabin.

If Republican Gov. Scott Walker gets his way, this will be the last year for the DNR magazine. Even though it is sustained entirely by subscribers — it had nearly 84,000 as of December — Walker’s proposed budget would end it next February. He argues that the state shouldn’t be in the publishing business and that more people can be reached through social media than the DNR magazine.

The proposal has outraged subscribers, particularly older ones who don’t rely on the internet for news, and has Democrats wondering if the pro-industry governor wants to pull the plug because the DNR magazine promotes science.

“To take away this tremendous communication tool, which costs them nothing, is really short-sighted,” said Stroschein, 54, of Mineral Point. “I don’t understand it.’’

At least a dozen states publish magazines detailing their environmental and wildlife agencies’ work, regarding them as a public relations vehicle. Wisconsin’s, which comes out every two months, typically runs articles by agency staff and freelancers accompanied by gorgeous photographs of wildlife and the outdoors. The April issue has a list of outdoor trips for the public, a staff story on a state nature preserve, and contributor pieces on kids’ efforts to build better birdhouses and how a ruffed grouse followed a man’s aunt around in 1950.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, told legislators last month that DNR employees lose time from core duties when they work on articles and that subscription revenue doesn’t make up for the lost hours. Echoing her boss, she said the agency could reach more people through social media.

But  Walker’s three state budgets have cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.

That’s the same argument that former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley made when they eliminated their states’ magazines in the last few years. Like Walker, they are both Republicans.

Some Wisconsin conservationists and Democrats aren’t buying the explanation. They believe the move reflects the de-emphasis of science and education at the DNR under Walker. The DNR recently scrubbed language from an agency webpage that stated human activity was a major cause of climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that it is, and replaced it with language that said the causes of global warming are still being debated. That move came after the state budget Walker signed in 2015 cut half the positions in the DNR’s science bureau.

Natasha Kassulke, who used to edit the DNR magazine, said agency executives began vetting content after a story on climate change ran in 2013. She said they spiked a story she wrote on the endangered American pine marten because it included a map showing that the creature inhabits an area near Lake Superior that had been slated for a contentious iron mine project. She said they also killed a story she wrote on how mammals will cope with climate change, telling her the terms “climate change” and “global warming” were forbidden.

Kassulke said she quit last summer because the editing had become so draconian.

“There are things in the magazine Walker hasn’t liked,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat who sits on the budget committee. “People like to sit down with something in their hand and read it outside of their smartphone or their tablet. It pays for itself. It’s not a waste of staff time. It’s more a matter of Scott Walker trying to control the message.’’

DNR spokesman James Dick declined to comment, saying the agency stands by Stepp’s testimony to the budget committee.

Legislators could save the magazine as they revise Walker’s budget. Nearly 3,000 people have subscribed and another 1,200 have renewed since Walker released the budget in February. The committee’s Republican members say they have heard from many constituents asking to spare the magazine.

Louisiana’s current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, decided last year to bring back the Louisiana Conservationist in a limited format. Rather than mail magazines to subscribers, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries places 7,500 free issues in its field offices.

“Everybody seems to like it, especially those old-timers, who seemed to miss it,” said agency spokesman Rene LeBreton.

Jim Shavlik, 80, of Crivitz, said he’s subscribed to the Wisconsin magazine for more years than he can remember. He sent an email to legislators warning them if the magazine dies he’ll quit volunteering to sample area water quality for the DNR.

“I do not like looking at a screen,” Shavlik said. “I just like a piece of paper in front of me. If they have a good reason (for eliminating the magazine), I can live with it. So far I haven’t heard a good reason.’’

 

 

Baldwin, Johnson introduce bill to lift protections for wolves

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are co-sponsors of legislation that would lift federal protections for gray wolves in the Midwest and Wyoming.

The other sponsors are John Barrasso and Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Similar legislation was introduced earlier this year in the U.S. House by Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy.

The aim of these lawmakers is to prevent courts from overruling a decision by the Interior Department to remove wolves in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the endangered species list.

In a news release, Johnson said, “I strongly agree with the feedback I’ve heard from Wisconsin stakeholders such as farmers, ranchers, loggers and sportsmen that future gray wolf listing decisions should come from wildlife experts, not from courtrooms.”

Baldwin said, “The Endangered Species Act plays a critical role in saving species from the brink of extinction, and when it does, we must acknowledge we have succeeded in restoring wildlife populations by delisting them. According to both federal and state wildlife biologists, this goal has been achieved with the gray wolf.”

She said she also heard “from farmers, sportsmen and wildlife experts, and they all agree. The wolf has recovered and we must return its management back to the state of Wisconsin, both for the safety and economic well-being of Wisconsinites and the balance of our environment.”

The  news release said the senators’ measure would “allow wolf management plans that are based on federal and state wildlife expertise to move forward without any legal ambiguity.”

Those management plans allow the trapping and hunting of wolves, including using dogs in the “sport” in Wisconsin. In Wyoming, the management plan allows unlimited shoot-on-sight killing of wolves across 85 percent of the state.

“A new Congress has resurfaced an old vendetta against imperiled wolves,” said Marjorie Mulhall, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice. “If this legislation is signed into law, wolves  in Wyoming will be subjected to unregulated killing across the vast majority of the state and even on the borders of Yellowstone National Park numerous legal loopholes will authorize widespread wolf killing.”

She continued, “We urge those who support the protection of wolves to call their senators and representatives and tell them to vote down this lethal legislation.”

On the Web

The House bill.

The Senate bill.

Wisconsin congressional delegation contacts.

Shielded Native American sites thrust into debate over dams

A little-known federal program that avoids publicizing its accomplishments to protect from looters the thousands of Native American sites it’s tasked with managing has been caught up in a big net.

The Federal Columbia River System Cultural Resources Program tracks some 4,000 historical sites that also include homesteads and missions in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Now it’s contributing information as authorities prepare a court-ordered environmental impact statement concerning struggling salmon and the operation of 14 federal dams in the Columbia River Basin.

A federal judge urged officials to consider breaching four of those dams on the Snake River.

“Because of the scale of the EIS, there’s no practical way for us, even if we wanted to, to provide a map of each and every site that we consider,” said Sean Hess, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region archaeologist. “There are some important sites out there that we don’t talk about a lot because of concerns about what would happen because of vandalism.”

Fish survival, hydropower, irrigation and navigation get the most attention and will be components in the environmental review due out in 2021. But at more than a dozen public meetings in the four states to collect feedback, the cultural resources program has equal billing. Comments are being accepted through Jan. 17.

The review process is being conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, an umbrella law that covers the well-known Endangered Species Act. Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been listed as federally protected species over the past 25 years.

But NEPA also requires equal weight be given to other laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, which is where the cultural resources program comes in. Among the 4,000 sites are fishing and hunting processing areas, ancestral village areas and tribal corridors.

“People were very mobile, prehistorically,” said Kristen Martine, Cultural Recourse Program manager for the Bonneville Power Administration.

Some of the most notable sites with human activity date back thousands of years and are underwater behind dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Celilo Falls, a dipnet fishery for thousands of years, is behind The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River. Marmes Rockshelter was occupied 10,000 years ago but now is underwater behind Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River.

“If we’re breaching dams, it would definitely change how we manage resources,” said Gail Celmer, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon ordered the environmental review in May after finding that a massive habitat restoration effort to offset the damage that dams in the Columbia River Basin pose to Northwest salmon runs was failing.

Salmon and steelhead runs are a fraction of what they were before modern settlement. Of the salmon and steelhead that now return to spawn each year, experts say, about 70 to 90 percent originate in hatcheries.

Those opposed to breaching the Snake River dams to restore salmon runs say the dams are an important part of the regional economy, providing irrigation, hydropower and shipping benefits.

Meanwhile, several tribes said they are better able to take part in the review process than they once were.

“Tribes have not had much opportunity to participate in these things because they didn’t have professional staff or trained people,” said Guy Moura of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state, noting the tribe employed four people in its cultural resources program in 1992 but now has 38. “With growth in size, there also came the evolution of what was being done.”

The tribe at one time had a large fishery at Kettle Falls, on the upper part of the Columbia River, but it was inundated in the 1940s behind Grand Coulee Dam. Dams farther downstream on the Columbia prevent salmon from reaching the area.

Also among the 4,000 historical sites is Bonneville Dam, one of 14 dams involved in the environmental impact statement. Bonneville Dam is the lowest dam in the system at about 145 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River. It started operating in the 1930s and became a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Earth to Trump: Environmentalists begin cross-country roadshow tour

Hundreds of people in Oakland and Seattle this week kicked off the cross-country Earth2Trump roadshow.

The two-route, 16-stop tour will build a network of resistance against President-elect Donald Trump’s attacks on the environment and civil rights.

The shows include live music, national and local speakers and a chance for participants to write personalized Earth2Trump messages that will be delivered to Washington, D.C., on inauguration day Jan. 20.

The Center for Biological Diversity is organizing the shows in coordination with groups around the country.

“This wave of resistance against Trump is only starting to build. What we saw in Oakland and Seattle will continue to grow bigger and stronger in the coming weeks,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the center.

He added, “And after Trump is in office, we’ll be there every day to oppose every policy that hurts wildlife, poisons our air and water, destroys our climate, promotes racism, misogyny or homophobia, or marginalizes entire segments of our society.”

The shows in Seattle and Oakland featured Hawaiian singer Makana, Brazilian funk band Namorados da Lua and singer/songwriters Dana Lyons and Casey Neill.

Attendees also signed a pledge of resistance and added their personal messages into large globes bound for D.C.

“I’m so inspired by the outpouring of empowerment and resistance we’re already seeing,” said Valerie Love, one of the Earth2Trump organizers who spoke at Oakland’s event. “When we come together and speak with a single voice, we become a force that can stand up and defend our environment, civil rights and democracy.”

Next stops
The central tour travels by train. One stop, in Portland, Oregon, featured Portland singer Mic Crenshaw and American Indian storyteller Si Matta, who was part of the water-protector occupation at Standing Rock.

The southern tour that began in Oakland will be in Los Angeles on Thursday from 6:30 p.m.-9 p.m. at Global Beat Multicultural Center. The show features Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez and musicians Casey Neill and Allyah.

See a map of the tour and more details at www.Earth2Trump.org.

Follow the tour on social media with #Earth2Trump and on the Center’s Medium page.

Cheetah in danger of extinction due to habitat loss

The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is in danger of extinction because it is running out of space, research led by the Zoological Society of London has found.

After a sharp decline in numbers there are now just 7,100 cheetahs in the world, or 9 percent of the historic range, the ZSL, Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera study found.

In Zimbabwe, the study found, these pressures have seen the cheetah population plummet 85 percent from 1,200 to at most 170 animals in just 16 years.

Wildlife experts are calling for the big cat to be rated “endangered,” up from “vulnerable” among threatened species, to give it greater environmental protection.

Capable of sprinting up to 75 miles per hour in short bursts, the cheetah is notoriously secretive and information on its status had been difficult to gather, meaning its predicament had been overlooked, the study said.

“Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought,” said Dr Sarah Durant, who is leading the cheetah conservation programme.

The study said that cheetahs were vulnerable to several dangers such as prey loss due to overhunting, habitat loss and illegal trafficking. Added to that, more than three-quarters of cheetahs live outside protected wildlife areas and, because they roam wide, are more vulnerable.

Record number of eagle and osprey nests in Wisconsin

Wisconsin wildlife officials say they’ve counted a record number of occupied eagle and osprey nests this year.

Aerial survey results released Tuesday show 1,504 occupied eagle nests, which is 39 more than last year, and 558 occupied osprey nests — 16 more than last year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“The recovery of bald eagles in Wisconsin is a great conservation success story and one that more Wisconsin residents are seeing up close as eagles expand into new territories,” said Drew Feldkirchner, director of the natural heritage conservation program for the state.

The state’s osprey population dramatically declined between the 1950s and the early 1970s as shoreline habitat was developed.

Today, 75 percent of state osprey nests are built on platforms erected on utility poles, cellphone towers and other tall structures.

“We’re also very pleased to see osprey numbers continue to climb and appreciate our partnership with utility companies and other partners to provide artificial nesting platforms for these birds,” Feldkirchner said.

State Department of Natural Resources pilots conducted the survey in March and April.

The state said it didn’t conduct a second aerial survey as in past springs to gauge reproductive success because the populations are healthy and growing and resources are being shifted to survey other non-game species, the State Journal reported.

 

Illicit marijuana farms decimate western wildlife

Tony Magarrell isn’t very relaxed for someone who just spent a week in the lush backcountry canyons of Lassen National Forest, 165 miles northwest of Reno.

Magarrell, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, wasn’t there to enjoy roaring waterfalls or abundant wildlife. He was cleaning up an illicit marijuana operation, a job that gives him a front-row seat to environmental wreckage most people will never see, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“This site has pretty much taken over the whole drainage out here,” said Magarrell of the 60-acre site that yielded about 6,000 pounds of trash, much of it in the form of hazardous chemicals. “It’s been a long week.”

The bags of trash hauled out by helicopter provided evidence of the damage illicit grows can do to the environment. But the damage goes far beyond the trash left behind.

Environmental damage from the grow sites includes widespread sickness and death among wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

On U.S. Forest Service land in California alone, authorities have identified more than 400 sites in the past two years with an estimated 1.7 million plants. Although hundreds of sites are identified, only a fraction of them are actually remediated. The number of cleanups fluctuates with availability of personnel and funding, Magarrell said.

Law enforcement officials report frequent instances of wildlife poaching by people working at the sites. Even more damaging than poaching is the mass amounts of poison associated with grow sites. That poison is killing wildlife at the site and being carried away by animals that consume it and die elsewhere.

Magarrell suspects the Burney site was the work of large drug trafficking operators from Mexico, who law enforcement believe are behind most major grows, and the environmental damage they cause.

Similar grow sites have been found in Nevada, although they are smaller and much fewer in number. In recent years, officials have found grows with trash, fertilizer and rat poison in the Spring Mountain National Forest Recreation Area near Las Vegas, the Austin Tonopah Ranger District in central Nevada and the Ely Ranger District in White Pine County.

Both California and Nevada voters have recently approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession and issue licenses for marijuana businesses. But it’s too soon to tell if that will affect illicit grows in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. That’s because the vast majority of what’s grown illicitly is sold through black market channels, which still exist because most states and the federal government still consider marijuana to be illegal.

In 2014, Chris Boehm, assistant director of law enforcement and investigations for the Forest Service, estimated drug trafficking organizations are operating in 72 national forests in 22 states.

“It is a national issue, it is not a California issue,” Magarrell said.

Research quantifies environmental damage

The site near Burney, which Magarrell said was typical for illicit grows, contained tons of evidence of environmental damage.

Law enforcement officials identified three camps each with its own dump sites, 18 miles of pipe diverting water from a creek, 11,360 pounds of trash, 1,250 pounds of fertilizer and a host of toxic chemicals.

The list included: insecticides such as Lorsban 480 EM, Sevin carbaryl and Malathion, the rat poison Bromethalin, Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which can be used as a pesticide and plant hormone concentrate Hormoviton Calor.

The growers use the chemicals for several purposes. Insecticides and herbicides can be used to prevent weeds and insects from damaging the plants, and the fertilizers promote growth.

Rat poison is often spread around the sites in copious amounts to kill everything from rodents to deer that might damage the plants.

The poison is particularly destructive because it often has a pleasant taste to attract animals, which encourages them to eat it.

When other animals, such as owls, mountain lions or bears, scavenge the contaminated carcasses, they can become sick as well.

“A deer is not going to eat a mouse, but if you have 90 pounds of peanut-butter-flavored rodenticide out there, (the deer) just walks in and starts eating the pellets,” said Mourad Gabriel, executive director and senior ecologist at Integral Ecology Research Center and one of the few researchers dedicated to studying ecological impact of illicit grow sites. “It is mimicking the potential legacy effects that other chemicals like DDT have done with wildlife.”

Gabriel, along with co-researcher Greta Wengert, is considered a leading researcher in the field thanks to his efforts to survey grow sites and document the spread of environmental damage.

His research shows the damage is widespread and affects species and habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada, where there are thought to be hundreds, or even thousands, of illicit grow sites.

Gabriel’s most prominent research found rat poison contamination in 85 percent of fisher carcasses tested for all of California. Fishers are forest-dwelling animals related to wolverines, minks and otters.

Gabriel’s research suggests, “contamination is widespread within the fisher’s range in California, which encompasses mostly public forest and park lands.”

The effects go beyond fishers. Gabriel has detected contamination in 67 percent of spotted owls tested.

And he’s documented contamination in black-tailed deer, bears, fox and upland game birds.

One trail camera photo from a grow site in a prime hunting zone captured a trophy buck browsing in a pile of refuse and poison at a grow site.

“This is a deer people would wait a lifetime to hunt,” Gabriel said. “Yet we have these folks who are in there illegally poaching them and illegally poisoning them.”

Important, but dangerous, work

The research is important because it quantifies environmental damage from illicit grows, an overlooked problem.

Recent statewide votes in California and Nevada in favor of relaxing anti-marijuana statutes show much of the public is ambivalent about prohibition.

Environmental damage, however, is a separate issue. Much of the public cares deeply about protecting wildlife and public land and the people who work on cleaning up grow sites want people to know about the damage.

“I believe the research that Mourad and Greta are doing should have already rattled the cages of every environmentalist, every hunter, anybody who gives a damn,” said Kary Schlick, a Forest Service wildlife biologist who has worked on spotted owl research.

The notion of prosecuting growers, when they’re caught, for environment-related offenses in addition to drug offenses is gaining steam among some prosecutors.

Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California in Fresno, cited cases in which prosecutors highlighted environmental damage as a key component in making cases against growers.

In one case a grower was sentenced for producing plants in the Canebrake Ecological Reserve in Kern County.

In the statement announcing the guilty plea prosecutors highlighted the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the area above the number of plants.

“It was first inhabited in about 1000 B.C. by the Tubatulabel culture and is currently home to numerous rare and protected plants and animals, including the federally protected golden and bald eagles and peregrine falcon, the federally threatened California red-legged frog and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher,” they wrote in the statement.

In another statement announcing a 10-year sentence against a grower they highlighted the grower’s, “involvement in a toxic marijuana cultivation operation in the Greenhorn Creek area of the Sequoia National Forest.”

Escobar credited the work of Gabriel and other researchers for providing much needed data in the effort to enhance sentences for environmental offenses related to illicit grows.

When Boehm described the problem to the sentencing commission he said armed guards are a threat to the safety of employees and visitors and cultivation techniques damage the environment.

“It is unknown how many tons of fertilizers, gallons of toxic liquids, or pounds of solid poisons are applied and used during the cultivation process on our public lands,” he testified. “However, we do know that the impacts are significant and far reaching.”

Despite the importance of data to efforts to eradicate damage from grows research into the problem is still limited.

That’s due in part to the fact it can be dangerous to researchers.

Gabriel has been subjected to threats, including the poisoning of his dog with rat poison in 2014. Authorities in Humboldt County, Calif., offered a $20,000 reward but did not identify any suspects.

And Schlick said she’s had to pull spotted owl researchers from the field in Northern California because they were encountering signs of dangerous cartel activity.

“What does it mean to the environment? We are diminishing our survey efforts and possibly not surveying anymore because the risk is too great,” Schlick said. “The quality of the data is at risk.”

Environmentalists sue De Beers over mercury at Canadian diamond mine

Wildlands League has gone to court against De Beers Canada Inc. for allegedly failing to report levels of mercury and methylmercury at its Victor Diamond Mine site in northern Ontario.

Methylmercury, a neurotoxin, can threaten the health of human and aquatic life.

Wildlands League alleges De Beers failed to report properly on mercury levels from five out of nine surface water monitoring stations for the creeks next to its open pit mine between 2009 and 2016, violating a condition of its Certificate of Approval. These are offenses under the Ontario Water Resources Act. 

“Private prosecutions are an important tool that allows private citizens to hold industry to account,” said Julia Croome, a lawyer with Ecojustice, which is representing the Wildlands League.

“When governments don’t enforce their own laws, this course of action is in the public interest,” Croome said.

The reporting failures undermined the effectiveness of the mine’s early warning system for mercury pollution, Ecojustice lawyers assisting the group say.

De Beers’ plans include extending the life of the Victor mine by digging the existing pit deeper and by digging another pit to bring the ore back to the Victor site for processing.

The Victor Diamond Mine is the first of 16 potential open pit mines that De Beers could build in the Attawapiskat River watershed. Further, a number of major mines have also been proposed for the Ring of Fire region, further upstream.

Wildlands League alerted the province and De Beers to the failures more than 18 months ago.

The group then outlined these concerns and others last December, in a special public report, “Nothing to See Here: failures of self-monitoring and reporting at the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine in Canada.”

“After months and months of silence from Ontario, we felt we had no choice but to file charges,” said Trevor Hesselink, citizen informant in this case, and Wildlands League director of policy and research.

“We expected Ontario to enforce its own laws. If we can’t rely on Ontario to oversee a single diamond mine, how can we trust it to oversee the many northern infrastructure and mining developments that are on the horizon?” Hesselink added.

The mine does not directly deposit methylmercury into nearby creeks.

Instead, its activities trigger impacts on the environment by stimulating the conversion of mercury already present in the ecosystem into methylmercury.

Methylmercury enters the food chain when fish absorb it directly through their gills or when they consume small organisms, like plankton, that are contaminated. The neurotoxin quickly concentrates at harmful levels in top predator fish and game, posing risks to indigenous people and recreational fishers that eat fish or game caught in the region.

The highest risks are borne by women of childbearing age and children under 15, as methylmercury affects brain and nervous system development.

The maximum fine under the Ontario Water Resources Act for a first time corporate offender is $250,000 per day.

De Beers has been ordered to make a first appearance in the Ontario Court of Justice in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2017.