POLSON ̶ In late October, researchers from the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station hosted a workshop focused on advancing the scientific knowledge of mining impacts on water quality and salmonid-bearing watersheds.
Thirty-nine science and policy experts from academic institutions, state and federal agencies, indigenous governments, and NGOs gathered at the FLBS facilities in Yellow Bay to participate in the candid and collaborative workshop. Those in attendance included representatives from the western states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Washington and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ottawa.
For FLBS researchers Erin Sexton and Chris Sergeant, who co-organized the event, it was an opportunity to create strategies for ensuring that the best science is available for use in management decisions designed to minimize mining impacts to watersheds.
“The workshop and discussions far exceeded my expectations,” said Sexton. “Much of the success was due to the engagement and enthusiasm of the attendees, complemented by the awesome team and great environment and facilities at the Bio Station.”
The northwest region of North America is home to many of the continent’s least developed and most vibrant freshwater ecosystems. These lands also contain vast mineral deposits, and large areas have been marked by past, present and exploratory mining operations. Recent research has raised concern over the potential impacts of these mining operations on the freshwater ecosystems that cross over from Canada to the United States.
“The transboundary Flathead and Kootenai watersheds are tremendously valuable to Northwest Montana, to our water quality, fisheries, economies and tribes,” said Sexton. “Both rivers have been threatened by mining, and Chris and I wanted to create a workshop that would provide the space and time, with a highly qualified group of experts, to take a hard look at how science is informing the assessment of risk and impacts from these mines.”
Co-funded by the Wilburforce Foundation and Salmon-Net, a group dedicated to improving public access to science relevant to the conservation and management of Pacific Salmon, the workshop aimed to strengthen the connection between science and the environmental decision-making focusing specifically on reducing the impacts of mining on watersheds.
Upon their arrival, participants were greeted by FLBS Director Jim Elser and given a tour of the Bio Station facilities. Rich Janssen, Department Head of Natural Resources for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) then officially kicked off the workshop by welcoming the group to CSKT territory and orienting the workshop to the surrounding watershed.
For the next three days, attendees participated in a series of plenary talks and small group discussions geared toward identifying knowledge gaps, future policy and science research needs, and current obstacles hindering the use of the best available science.
“We received wonderful feedback on the diversity of the participants’ expertise and the structure of the workshop,” said FLBS researcher Chris Sergeant. “People are energized and already working on a number of important products stemming directly from this meeting. I think the biggest compliment we received is that people are committed to advancing this work over the next year or two.”
Future products resulting from the workshop will include two peer-reviewed scientific articles, the release of documented workshop proceedings, and the production of outreach materials designed to deliver key findings to watershed communities in a user-friendly format.
More importantly, organizers and participants hope that the workshop will create a lasting and cohesive network of practitioners who are dedicated to evaluating and addressing the risks and impacts of mining in salmonid-bearing watersheds.
“Many people, from community members to government officials, are asking what they need to know about mining impacts to rivers,” Sergeant said. “If we can arm people with the knowledge present in the room last week, that will be a big win for the special rivers in our region and the people that depend on them staying healthy.”