Local View: Boundary Waters grouse — and all creatures — depend on clean water

From the column: "Although grouse hunting is strictly a boots on the ground (vs. waterborne) affair, one thing all wildlife (aquatic or otherwise) depend on — in the Boundary Waters and elsewhere — is clean water."

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David Lien

Although most ruffed grouse hunters wouldn’t consider venturing into the Boundary Waters in search of umbellus bonasa ("umbellus" refers to the umbrella-like ruffs of dark feathers on the bird’s neck and "bonasa" to its drumming noise), there are those who wouldn’t hunt anywhere else. They’re drawn to the BWCAW’s 1.1 million acres of lakes, rivers, streams and Canadian Shield terrain stretching across northern Minnesota from Crane Lake to Grand Marais.

I was privileged to grow up immersed in the outdoors of northern Minnesota. Hunting, fishing, trapping, camping, hiking and canoeing — pursuits that naturally led me to the vast expanse of public lands found in the Superior National Forest and its Pleistocene-like Boundary Waters. Although grouse hunting is strictly a boots on the ground (vs. waterborne) affair, one thing all wildlife (aquatic or otherwise) depend on — in the Boundary Waters and elsewhere — is clean water.

Unfortunately, a foreign-owned mining company, Twin Metals, is pushing plans for a $3 billion underground sulfide-ore (i.e., copper-nickel) mine where the South Kawishiwi River flows into the Boundary Waters southeast of Ely. The copper and nickel deposits that lie underneath the lakes and forests of Northeastern Minnesota are encased in sulfide ore. When that ore is exposed in the mining process, it produces sulfuric acid (basically battery acid).

A place that’s half land and half water is the absolute worst location for a sulfide mine because such mines are essentially waste-management industries. The Twin Metals deposit, for example, contains barely 0.5% copper. The rest, sulfide-ore waste, would be stored in piles mounding across an area the size of 100 football fields, explained Sierra contributor Conor Mihell in 2016.

No sulfide-ore copper mine has ever operated and closed without polluting nearby waters, according to the National Wildlife Federation. That’s a 100% failure rate. A study of 14 modern copper mines in the U.S., representing 89% of U.S. copper production, found that all of them contaminated nearby waters, Becky Rom (Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters Chair) explained in the 7/9/16 Duluth News Tribune. In addition, the EPA calls the mining of sulfide ore America’s most toxic industry.


On the morning of Oct. 4, I departed Ely headed for the Echo Trail. This was the seventh year in a row I’ve joined a fall seven-day Boundary Waters trip. Some of us bring shotguns and bust the brush for grouse when not paddling and portaging. During four days of hunting I managed 14 flushes, seven shots and four kills while hiking some 24½ miles in 17-plus hours. Another hunter shot two grouse, bringing our final tally to six birds, which facilitated a “popcorn” grouse dinner that was enjoyed by all trip participants.

The Boundary Waters is a place where you can still dip your cup in a lake and drink your fill, for now. Twin Metal’s proposed sulfide mine would be situated in the headwaters of the Rainy River Drainage Basin, which includes the BWCAW (the most-visited unit in America’s Wilderness system); Voyageurs National Park; Quetico Provincial Park (in Canada); and, eventually, Lake of the Woods. All these waterways are interconnected, meaning one unchecked source of pollution could have regionwide impacts.

Proposed sulfide mining operations put this primordial labyrinth of pristine waterways and wild landscapes at risk. Sulfide mining, in a nutshell, is a war over Minnesota’s water. In the words of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney (in the Winter 2020 "Backcountry Journal"), “There has never been a copper/sulfide mine that hasn’t leached. Never … There shall be no mine here … not ever … not on BHA’s watch.” Learn more at Sportsmen For The Boundary Waters:

David Lien of Colorado Springs, Colo., and formerly of Grand Rapids, Minn., is a former Air Force officer and the founder and former chairman of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.”

File: Grouse
Grouse reports from opening weekend of the 2021 hunting season in Minnesota ranged from "a non-event'' to "great success." Tyler Schank / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

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