A Fork in the Road. Future Development in Ontario's Far North
Ontario's Far North contains some of the world's most intact sub- arctic terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. It is a stronghold for a number of fish and wildlife species such as woodland caribou, wolverine, and lake sturgeon. The region is also the homeland of Ojibwe, Oji-Cree and Cree First Nations who have established long- standing traditional cultural values and a unique relationship with this land that they have used and occupied for thousands of years. The environment in the Far North provides important "services" to people such as climate regulation, food, cultural values, and clean and abundant water supplies. The Far North also includes a wealth of natural resources such as minerals, hydropower development potential, timber resources, and other resource development opportunities. In 2010, the Government of Ontario committed to working with First Nation communities to develop land-use plans that sup- port conservation and development of the Far North. An important step in the planning process is assessing whether the cumulative effects of the full suite of potential future developments are compat- ible with the aspirations of First Nations and Ontario.
To support decision-making in this unique region, we applied a sim- ulation model (ALCES®) to explore changes in the composition of regional landscapes associated with potential future mining, hydro- electric development, and forestry activity as well as forest fires, and the implications for woodland caribou, wolverine, moose, and the intactness of watersheds. Our study focused on the James Bay Lowlands, which includes the large mineral reserves in the Ring of Fire, numerous kimberlite deposits, including the Victor Diamond mine, and major rivers with hydropower potential such as the Attawapiskat, Moose, and Albany. To encompass the full extent of the Pagwachuan Caribou Range, the study area extended south of the James Bay Lowland thereby also incorporating portions of five Sustainable Forest Licenses that are managed primarily for timber production.
The simulated development scenario resulted in a three-fold increase in anthropogenic footprint over 50 years, primarily due to road and transmission corridor expansion to support industrial develop- ments. The spatial pattern of the simulated footprint differentiated between the dispersed road network associated with forestry in the south and the more isolated, but intensive, mining and hydroelectric developments in the north. The simulated forestry activity in the south had consequences for the Pagwachuan Caribou Range where the risk to herd survival approached the high category and range disturbance exceeded a threshold of 35% – a guideline in the national caribou recovery strategy. Simulated impacts to wolverine were also greatest in the south, where expansion of the road network caused habitat suitability to decline. Land use impacts to wildlife such as caribou and wolverine may be exacerbated by climate change. As an example, the moose population was simulated to increase two- fold when climate change was incorporated, which would likely cause the region’s wolf population to grow with negative implications for caribou herd viability. Simulated mining and hydroelectric developments were sufficiently isolated at a regional scale to avoid large impacts to caribou and wolverine. A greater concern, how- ever, may be the consequences of these developments to the integrity of aquatic ecosystems. The watershed impact score increased for a number of northern watersheds, demonstrating that risk to aquatic ecosystems is likely to increase in watersheds that contain important natural resource regions such as the Ring of Fire due to the presence of multiple mining and hydroelectric developments.
The outcomes of this pilot project offers important considerations when addressing cumulative effects in northern Ontario, including: the benefit to wildlife of limiting land use to isolated regions within an otherwise intact landscape; the need to improve understanding of the cumulative effects to aquatic ecosystems of multiple large-scale developments (e.g., mines, dams) within northern watersheds; and the potential for climate change to increase the sensitivity of wildlife to industrial land use. We hope these findings will inform land-use planning at both the community and regional scale and motivate additional analyses that are needed to comprehensively assess cumulative effects in Ontario’s Far North.