RENO — A group of sportsmen and conservationists is trying to rally opposition to Barrick Gold Corp.’s plans to expand a major gold mine in northeast Nevada, a move the critics say could harm the state’s largest herd of mule deer.
The Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife said the major expansion proposed at the Bald Mountain Mine would disrupt a key migration route the deer use in the winter about 80 miles west of the Utah line.
“This is their principal migration route,” coalition president Larry Johnson said. “In bad weather, this could be devastating to this herd.”
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement later this month on the plan to expand the mine at the south end of the Ruby Mountains about half way between Elko and Ely.
Barrick proposes to expand “surface disturbance” at Bald Mountain’s north operations area from 9,292 acres to 13,640 acres, adding four new heap leach pads and to expand disturbance in the mine’s south operations area from 943 acres to 3,499 acres. The project also would install an electric transmission line and build a road linking the two mining areas.
Bald Mountain already is one of the nation’s largest mining sites. It produced 94,000 ounces of gold in 2013 with proven and probable mineral reserves put at 2.5 million ounces of gold.
Johnson said the project will create a “convoluted pathway” for migration that would wind between deep open pits, ore and waste rock stockpiles and haul routes. He said that could mean trouble for the Ruby Mountain deer herd, which comprises 22 to 24 percent of Nevada’s entire deer population.
The impacts may not be significant during mild winters, but could be serious during harsh winters when deer sometimes migrate more than 100 miles south past U.S. 50 in search of suitable winter habitat.
“They are effectively going to cut it off,” Johnson said. “When you put a barrier in their path that stops their migration route, (deer) burn energy and a certain percentage don’t make it.”
The coalition says among other things that Barrick is refusing to include recent collaring data collected by the Nevada Department of Wildlife in environmental analysis of the project and refusing to consider operational changes in the event future data indicates serious impacts are occurring.
Barrick officials disagree.
“Mr. Johnson’s accusations are misinformed and ignore Barrick’s good-faith efforts to work with NDOW and BLM to protect mule deer habitat over many years,” Barrick spokesman Louis Schack said.
“The Bald Mountain Mine has operated continuously since the 1980s and we have established a long record of successful habitat protection and enhancement in and around our operations. Many of these projects were completed in support of NDOW and other agencies’ habitat improvement and land management goals,” Schack added.
Once the draft environmental study is released, Schack said Barrick will work with BLM to address any concerns that may arise.
Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy said preserving the integrity of the migration corridor is a high priority. Latest estimates put the size of the Ruby Mountain mule deer herd at about 24,000 animals.
“This is a very important mule deer herd. You’re talking literally about a quarter of the herd in the state,” Healy said. “We’re hoping as this process goes along we’re going to be able to use the best available science and try to maintain these migration corridors. We know these corridors are indeed necessary.”