Returning vegetation to Yukon mines with Indigenous knowledge and data

Through a community-engaged approach with First Nations, Mitacs intern aims to design revegetation plans that improve mine reclamation outcomes

Did you know that Canadian mining companies need to plan for a mine closure even before the production starts? This process — called mine reclamation — involves outlining how land, water, and even cultural resources will be restored, and is the focus of the work of Mitacs Accelerate intern Krystal Isbister, a PhD candidate in the Department of Renewable Resources of the University of Alberta (U of A).

Prior to starting her doctoral studies this year, this Whitehorse, Yukon, native ran her own independent consulting company specializing in vegetation services. She worked with several clients on mine revegetation and felt there was not enough knowledge or examples of successful techniques for the companies to make informed decisions.

Thus, her path led from consultant to graduate student.

“We were improving at growing northern plants, but had no clear path forward,” explains Isbister. “Dr. Guillaume Nielsen, a research associate at Yukon University, approached me in late 2018 with similar questions. He was developing and now holds the NSERC Chair in Northern Mine Remediation in partnership with seven mining companies with Yukon projects; they also identified that the lack of revegetation techniques poses a significant challenge.”

The companies are collectively organized as the Yukon Mining Research Consortium. Newmont is the lead supporter of Isbister’s research project, and other members of the consortium include: Alexco Resource Corp., BMC Minerals Ltd., Casino Mining Corp., Minto Explorations, Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd., and Victoria Gold Corp.

Most of Isbister’s four-year PhD research is based at Newmont’s Coffee exploration site in central Yukon, which is the proposed location of a future mine. She has been in discussions with nearby First Nations since November of 2019 to incorporate their needs into the project and ensure the research is relevant and useful to the communities.

Isbister is in the process of setting up research agreements — a crucial element as the proposed mine footprint and access roads are within culturally significant areas of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, the Selkirk First Nation, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, and the White River First Nation. The discussions also involve the community of nearby Dawson City.

Community-engaged approach to mine revegetation

Isbister’s research will begin with collaboratively exploring reclamation goals and determining what reclamation “success” means to local community members. She will then facilitate knowledge sharing between local, traditional, and scientific experts to select species for the revegetation experiments.

On a broad scale, her research results will provide a more holistic understanding of what land restoration success means to Yukon communities and assist companies in designing plans that meet local expectations.

“Reclamation objectives are usually considered technical questions and we expect ‘success’ to mean much more than ecological indicators such as vegetation cover,” she explains. “In the field, the sharing of local, traditional, and scientific knowledge will improve our understanding of how to meet revegetation goals in the field research.”

Newmont recognizes the value in supporting Yukon-specific revegetation research. “We are excited to work with scientists and researchers and with local communities, to explore innovative approaches to mine reclamation. While Coffee is still an exploration site, we want to demonstrate to our First Nation partners, regulators, and others that improved revegetation results can be achieved through science-based research that includes community participation,” says the Coffee Project’s Manager of Sustainability and External Relations Jennie Gjertsen.

The proposed techniques are designed to maximize the use of local resources — people, plants, and snow — and could feasibly be completed with locally sourced plant material. If successful, this may be transferrable to other disturbed sites such as placer mines, which are common throughout Yukon.

As a result of the community-engaged research process, the team expects to develop relationships between all partners and improve the capacity of future collaboration. The research will also provide employment opportunities for students at Yukon University and residents of the region.

And, although the project is just starting, its results are already of interest to Yukon entrepreneurs who want to establish a nursery for mine restoration.

Isbister adds, “I also hope this project will support communities’ aspirations to develop revegetation interests into economic or educational opportunities.”

It takes a village

Isbister will not be flying solo on this endeavour. In truly collaborative fashion, a team of advanced academic researchers support her work.

“I’m very lucky to have supervisory support from University of Alberta researchers Dr. Simon Landhäusser and Dr. Liza Piper. As a team, they bring the experience to study both the social and ecological aspects of mining revegetation in northern Canada,” says Isbister.

Landhäusser’s research focuses on the development of innovative strategies and techniques for the re-establishment of forests on surface-mined lands. And co-supervisor Liza Piper guides Isbister’s research as it relates to community involvement and partnership with the First Nations communities and their regional traditional knowledge.

Mitacs has been another important partner in the project, notes Isbister, not only because of the financial support but also because of a unique perspective brought to the project. “I think the expertise provided by the Mitacs team on navigating industry-research-community partnerships will be equally beneficial.”

Her supervisor agrees. “This scholarship enables Krystal to pursue her dream of doing northern research that could profoundly influence the policy and application of reclamation in northern climates and communities,” says Landhäusser.

Isbister concludes, “I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to research a topic that is meaningful and relevant to me and the communities I care about. I hope that through the research process, other Yukoners gain the interest, skills, and confidence to pursue further involvement in research and the mining industry.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

Photo by Bonnie Burns.


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