State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Rivers Exposed by Glacier Retreat Fuel Competition Between Mining Industry and Salmon

In the ice- and glacier-covered region shared by northern British Columbia (BC) and Alaska, shrinking glaciers are leaving behind thousands of miles of new rivers that could act as future habitat for salmon. While these emerging watersheds could be a lifeline for salmon populations that have struggled in recent years, mining companies have also identified large mineral deposits in many, creating conflict between the mining industry and fish advocates. A recent policy forum published in Science delineates these emerging land-use conflicts and identifies current oversights in environmental policy and opportunities for improved management of these soon-to-be exposed habitats.

The Mineral Tenure Act is the BC law that allows mining interests and companies to stake claims on lands without significant government oversight or consultation with First Nations. The Fraser River Gold Rush drove the initial creation of a British colony in BC in the mid-1800s, and the Mineral Tenure Act was a direct means to exclude Indigenous peoples from watersheds they had relied on since time immemorial for their livelihoods and spiritual purposes.

Distant view of abandoned mine with rust-colored water
An abandoned mine on the banks of the formerly glaciated Tulsequah River in BC. The rust-colored water is untreated acid mine drainage, which can negatively impact water quality for species like salmon. Courtesy of Chris Miller/SFU News.

Due to climate change and warming temperatures in the region, mining interests are now able to stake claims along emerging lands near rivers that were formerly buried under shrinking ice and glaciers. However, research has shown that these emerging rivers will also provide critical habitat for the struggling salmon populations in the region that would be threatened by mining. This leaves a disconnect in BC’s mining and conservation policies, since the latter does not currently protect future and emerging habitat for at-risk species like salmon.

Faced with this disconnect, researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Gitanyow First Nation Hereditary Chiefs, the University of Montana and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation formed a partnership, working together on a policy forum—a short academic paper that incorporates policy recommendations as well as research results. Published last fall, the paper represents a culmination of their work to understand the impacts of mining claims on future salmon habitat uncovered by retreating glaciers and to provide recommendations for policies moving forward.

Man in cap takes notes near a salmon swimming in a river
Jonathan Moore (SFU) is studying sockeye salmon in the formerly glaciated Tulsequah River within the Taku watershed in BC. Courtesy of Mark Connor.

Jonathan Moore, an aquatic ecology and conservation professor at SFU and lead author of the paper, highlighted the importance of the issue, saying, “In some locations of northern BC and Alaska, glacier retreat is creating hotspots of opportunity for salmon but also of mining pressure.”

The paper evaluated 114 subwatersheds identified in the region between BC and Southeast Alaska (the transboundary region) with high potential for future salmon habitat as glaciers retreat.

This issue of mining claims overlapping with potential salmon habitat is highly concentrated spatially. More than half of the area of such threatened habitat is located in only 25 of the 114 transboundary watersheds. The researchers also showed that more than half of future habitat in Canada has medium or high mineral potential, which indicates a strong possibility for future mining pressure and claims.

Two people stand by a river with mountains in the background
Researchers Jonathan Moore and Mark Connor (Taku River Tlingit First Nation Fisheries) on the banks of the Tulsequah River, a location of emerging salmon habitat and mining claims in BC. Courtesy of Chris Sergeant.

This study comes at a pivotal time in Canada’s debate over mining claims and Indigenous rights. BC’s Supreme Court ruled last September that the Mineral Tenure Act violated the duty to consult with First Nations and ordered policy makers in BC to modernize the Act by June 2025.

“These changes can’t come soon enough,” said Tara Marsden, one of the co-authors on the study and the Wilp sustainability director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs. “The Mineral Tenure Act not only violates Indigenous rights but also undermines stewardship of ecosystems for future generations.”

In addition to efforts to revamp the Mineral Tenure Act, different First Nations have created or are working to create Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) that integrate climate change concerns and holistic perspectives into environmental stewardship. These IPCAs are defined by the Indigenous Circle of Experts as “lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance, and knowledge systems.” The use of IPCAs has returned land autonomy and governance to First Nations.

Moore told GlacierHub that collaborators chose to use a policy forum rather than a traditional research article format because “instead of just raising the issue, it provides a forum to discuss what the tangible policy options to address this challenge are.” As their key recommendations, the authors highlighted the development of more IPCAs, proactive US and BC policies for the protection of glaciers and surrounding habitats (similar to laws in Argentina), and an overhaul of the Mineral Tenure Act to enable forward-looking and balanced land-use planning.

Glacier with mountains in background
A glacier in northern BC. Glacier retreat is opening up new streams and lakes that provide new habitat for species such as salmon. Courtesy of Jonathan Moore.

The work done by these researchers illuminates a broad global challenge: as climate change rapidly alters Earth’s ecosystems, environmental policies may struggle to keep pace. This study “reveals the need to make sure that [environmental laws] not only protect habitats of today but also the habitats of tomorrow,” Moore added.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, highlighted the breadth of this challenge. “Almost nowhere in the world has land-use policy kept up with climate change. Climate-induced changes are making large areas of land unsuitable for many human uses, [but] declaring any of these areas unavailable for these uses has large economic consequences and will be met with ferocious political opposition,” he said.

The recent policy forum highlights a need to address economic interests, proactive climate resilience and Indigenous rights simultaneously. “With our land-use plans and protections, we are not saying no to industry everywhere, we are saying let’s do this in a good way,” Marsden explained. “This is a globally relevant opportunity to get a lot right—Indigenous rights, meaningful protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, and climate resilience.”

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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