The wolf and wild rice face threats from mining companies


ild rice, or Manoomin, is the only grain endemic to North America and is a part of the Anishinaabeg migration story. There are few other places in the world where such a bountiful gift is delivered to those who live there, whether they have wings or hands. The lakes and rivers, owing to the unique nature and adaptability of the manoomin, each year offer a wild rice crop. This is a sacred food and a keystone of the ecosystem of the Great Lakes region, or Anishinaabe Akiing.  

Related as well, to the most spiritual of all traditions and history is also the Anishinaabeg relationship to the Ma’iingan, the wolf. It is said in Anishinaabeg prophecies that which befalls the wolf will befall the Anishinaabeg. The decimation of the Anishinaabeg by plagues, starvation and federal policies closely mirrored the destruction of the ma’iingan. The limiting of territories to reservations for the Anishinaabeg, and the wolves to a few sparse patches of the north woods, occurred for both.

Today, both the wolf and the wild rice face dire threats of devastation, as mining interests loom on the edges of the territory, or seek to re-open old scarred mines of the past hundred years in a renewed fervor of an inefficient  minerals based material economy.

It is ironic that the two largest barriers to the wholesale mining of the north, may be manoomin, or wild rice and the ma’iingan. Proposals in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota would eviscerate water quality laws with severe impacts on the wild rice of the north. In turn, the recent delisting by the US Fish and Wildlife of the wolf seems suspiciously synchronized with the interests of new mining companies in the region. Losing an endangered species is the removal of a big stumbling block to mining.  

Tribal communities, joined increasingly by northern residents, have opposed the threats to water and wild rice throughout the north country. And, while the wolf has been delisted by federal agencies, with moves to state regulation, tribal governments and inter-government agencies in the north pledge to retain their relationship and responsibility to the ma’iingan .

Threats From Mines

New mines are being proposed throughout the region: from the Yellow Dog mine of the Keewenaw Penninsula to the Polymet and Franconia, and now the Duluth Twin Metals mines of the Boundary Waters. In the center is the proposed Gogebic Penokee Mine, thus far fended off by citizens and tribes.

Mining proposals are descending on the National forests of Northern Minnesota. Polymet, whose only investor is multinational mining giant Glencore, is the furthest along in the permitting process. PolyMet Mining’s North Met Mine, located between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, is the first of what may become many sulfide mine proposals. The mine is proposed as an economic development strategy for the depressed region. The proposed copper mine will involve the transfer of some public 6700 acres under an act being forwarded by Senator Amy Klobuchar, called the Superior National Forest Land Adjustment Act. That transfer will allow for the mine access.

Another proposal is for the former Franconia mine project, which was purchased by Duluth Twin Metals. Their mining proposal is called "Nokomis" (meaning grandmother in Ojibwe) and is viewed as more than a bit offensive by the Ojibwe.

All projects in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area side of the divide are now consolidated under the one front corporation, Duluth Twin Metals. Duluth Twin Metals is owned by Antafagasta from Chile. As former Representative Frank Moe notes, "Of course they have a horrible environmental and human rights record. Their original project, which they’ve now contracted Bechtel to engineer for them, would be 32,000 acres, the largest in North America. They have the ability to expand to 54,000 acres on that site."  

The problem is that in contrast to traditional iron mining, mining sulfide ores for precious metals like copper, gold and platinum exposes a type of waste rock that leaches an acidic compound that threatens wildlife and waterways.

Acid Mine Drainage

The mix of air, water and bacteria of mining means the sulfur will morph into sulfuric acid. This will change the pH of the water system, and liberate heavy metals out of the rock formation which then gets into the water as mercury (already high in Minnesota lakes) and is called acid mine drainage. All of that will move into the wild rice. If you want a see the effects of acid mine drainage look at the St. Louis River, which is denuded of life from acid mine run off.

On February 18, 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave a "failing" grade to the Polymet Northmet Coppermine proposal, saying it was "Environmentally Unsatisfactory" and "Inadequate." This is an almost unprecedented grade for the EPA, which has only given this low of a rating to less than 1% of similar projects.

Undaunted, mining proponents have spent over $20 million to get their way. Glencore (the investor behind Polymet) hired Tony Hayward, the BP CEO who presided over the Gulf Oil Spill, as its new environment and safety expert.

In the l980s and l990s, a set of battles was successfully waged in Wisconsin to stop the mining companies. They were won by citizen activism, resulting in some of the strictest mining laws in the world, with the World Mining Journal terming Wisconsin, "the hardest place in the world to put a mine in…"

Wisconsin’s mining law requires a precautionary view of any mining projects – or to prove that it can be done successfully and with a clean result. The law remains on the books, despite one of the most politically heated legislative battles in Wisconsin history, carried out in the Spring of 2012.

Now the mining industries are seeking to push similar regulators in Minnesota, just like their attempts in Wisconsin to get the legislature to suspend a number of committees and shove through a bill authored by mining proponents. That law would have gutted Wisconsin’s mining laws – amongst the most stringent in the world. It didn’t work and people celebrated as Gogebic Mine proponents called it quits.  

Wild Rice And The Wolf

Wild rice needs a clean watershed in which to grow, not one which is contaminated with mining discharge. That is why Minnesota has a water quality rule which insures that no more than l0 ppm of sulfide comes into an area with wild rice. This law has been on the books for four decades. Minnesota state regulatory agencies are now considering a change in water quality standards under recently passed laws. And the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit seeking to remove restrictions for the mines to move forward.  

The delisting of an endangered species in a region proposed for an aggressive minerals exploitation is convenient for mining corporations. Arguing that the wolf populations have been restored adequately and now constitute a threat to the deer populations of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, legislation and regulations are underway to open a wolf season in the north as early as the fall of 2012. Their target is to allow for the killing of up to 400 wolves.

Mark Johnson , Executive Director of the Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association is excited about the prospect of a wolf season during the deer season. He points out that, "If deer hunters had the option to buy a tag [to take a wolf], that might even be a pretty marketable hunt.

Ken Soyring, DNR regional enforcement supervisor in Grand Rapids said, "Where else can you hunt a deer and get a chance at a wolf? I think that’s something people would drive for."  

The math seems good to Johnson, one proposal is for the state to hold a lottery on wolf season to be held during firearms deer season. They think the state might sell as many as 75,000 to l00,000 licenses. One hundred thousand licenses at $20 a piece, which would equal to $2 million.

MN Rep. David Dill (DFL), of Crane Lake, and Senator Tom Saxhaug, of Grand Rapids, introduced companion bills calling for a wolf hunting season to begin no later than the first day of Minnesota’s firearms deer hunting season, or November 3 of 2012. They propose a secondary wolf trapping season to begin on January l, 2013.

A similar Wolf hunting bill is being proposed in Wisconsin – Senate Bill 411. In both cases, the strongest opposition to the wolf hunting and trapping seasons are the tribes and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. They are joined by national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Humane Society.

The Red Lake Ojibwe Band several years ago adopted a wolf policy which promotes the preservation of the wolf within the 843,000 acre reservation. In 2010, the Red Lake Tribal Council adopted a management plan for wolves designating a wolf sanctuary, where tribal laws supersede state laws and management activities will be designed to preserve wolves and their habitats.

There may be something to be learned from the people of Wisconsin. And there may be something to be learned from the Anishinaabeg and the wolf.  

"…We see the wolf as a predictor of our future," Joe Rose , Bad River Elder and Professor Emeritus at Northland College, said to a New York Times reporter, "And what happens to wolf, happens to Anishinaabe.… whether other people see it or not, the same will happen to them.."

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