Conservation News

Boundary Waters Whitetails, Watersheds & Sulfide Mining by David Lien

Hunting the 1.1-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) may be as close as we can get today to experiencing what it was like to be a hunter-gatherer during the Pleistocene, a period of time (from 2 million to about 12,000 years ago) when every human alive was a hunter-gatherer.


I grew up immersed in the outdoors of northern Minnesota: hunting, fishing, trapping, 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. However, today a foreign mining company is pushing plans for a $3 billion underground sulfide-ore (i.e., copper-nickel) mine where South Kawishiwi River flows into the BWCAW.


Twin Metals, owned by Antofagasta of Chile, and other mining companies are pressuring state and federal officials to allow sulfide mining in northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest region. This type of mining pollutes land and waters with sulfuric acid, heavy metals and other chemicals (known collectively as “acid mine drainage,” or AMD) and is often called the most toxic industry in America.[1] For good reason.


Every single sulfide-ore mining operation in the nation has, at some point, discharged pollution into adjacent waters or lands, damaging wildlife, waterways, wetlands, forests and local communities.[2] It’s not a matter of whether there will be AMD, but only a question of when will it occur and in what volumes. And, as we’ve seen in Colorado, where the Animas River turned orange from the Gold King Mine spill (during August 2015), what steps taxpayers and government agencies must undertake to try to clean up the mess.[3]


David Lien Deer

Big Bucks

During recent years I’ve paddled the Boundary Waters during October with Stuart Osthoff, publisher of the Boundary Waters Journal (BWJ)—in part, to see more of what’s threatened by these proposed mines. In addition to being a second-to-none wilderness guide, top-tier angler, and all-around enjoyable person to share a canoe/camp with, Stu relishes stalking big bucks in the BWCAW and surrounding Superior National Forest.


Striking totems of Stu’s deer hunting skills are displayed on the walls of his log home near Ely: an impressive array of trophy-class mounts that will leave most deer hunter’s jaws agape. In the Winter 2015 BWJ, Stu said: “Nothing created by man has come close to captivating me like a big whitetail buck. Such is the power of these deer … hunting in the BWCAW and surrounding Superior National Forest simply embraces the wilderness experience at the very highest level.”[4]


Although the BWCAW isn’t generally known for holding deer in high quantities, it more than makes up for it in quality. “I’ve found some awesome sheds and buck sign on many canoe trips,” Stu says. “I know where I could hunt big bucks out there who live and die without ever seeing a human being … There are areas with more deer and areas with more top-end deer, but I contend the BWCAW is the highest-quality public land wilderness whitetail hunting in America.”[5]


Deer encounters have been infrequent during these October Boundary Waters trips, but we’re happy simply to be immersed in the kaleidoscope-of-colors panorama that is northern Minnesota’s BWCAW during October, stretching our Paleo legs and lungs while immersed in the poignant sights and smells of fall. It doesn’t get any better. Unfortunately, proposed sulfide mining operations put this primordial labyrinth of pristine waterways and wild landscapes at risk.


Sulfide Mining

Sulfide mines 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 essentially interconnected, meaning one unchecked source of pollution could have region-wide impacts.[6]


And 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 percent copper. The rest, sulfide ore waste, would be stored in piles mounding across an area the size of 100 football fields.[7] And a study of 14 modern copper mines in the U.S., representing 89 percent of U.S. copper production, found that all of them contaminated nearby waters.[8] In addition, the EPA calls the mining of sulfide ore America’s most toxic industry.[9]


Earlier this year, during March, Governor Mark Dayton expressed, “strong opposition to mining in close proximity to the BWCAW.” In April, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the Boundary Waters Wilderness a “special area” that should be re-examined to “better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development.”[10]


In June, the Bureau of Land Management “requested that the Forest Service provide a decision on whether it consents or does not consent to the renewal of the [Twin Metals] leases.” In response, the U.S. Forest Service stated the agency is “deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW” and initiated a public input period. Public comments resulted in more than 72,000 petition signatures opposed to sulfide mining in the watershed.[11]


Sportsmen’s groups have also expressed strong opposition. Land Tawney, president/CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said that the protection of the Boundary Waters “has turned into a national priority, not just for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, but for all sportsmen across the country.”[12] Indeed, over the last two years dozens of national and statewide hunting, fishing and outdoors organizations have gone on record opposing proposed northern Minnesota sulfide mines.


These groups include (in part): American Fly Fishing Trade Association, American Sportfishing Association, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, International Federation of Fly Fishers, Izaak Walton League of America, National Wildlife Federation, Orion-The Hunter’s Institute, Pope & Young Club, Ely Outfitting Co. & Boundary Waters Guide Service, French River Muzzleloaders, Full Curl Brand, GreenHead Productions, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Modern Carnivore, Northstar Canoes, Piragis Northwoods Company, Rapala, Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, and the Upper Midwest Council of the International Federation of Fly Fishers, and many more.[13]


Real Hunting

In the rocky swamps and timber of the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, deer hunting is a passion of many, like Duluth hunter Darrell Spencer, who says (about hunting the Boundary Waters): “The general consensus is, it might be the last place you can hunt white-tailed deer on their own terms.”[14]


Stu Osthoff adds: “A 150 class BWCAW buck that survives five tough winters and timber wolves on his trail nearly 24/7, is as tough and savvy as any big game animal on earth.”[15] “I call this real hunting,” Stu said.[16] And Stu got it right when he wrote: “Deer hunting is not really about venison in the freezer or antlers on the wall. It is about a timeless and priceless love of the wild.”[17]


As Darrell and Stu know well, there are many places where there are more deer, and most offer easier access and warmer quarters, but no region with whitetails offers more satisfaction and elbow room than the public forests of northeastern Minnesota. In Darrell’s words: “Deer hunting in the BWCAW is difficult, but the challenge of chasing big bucks in the wilderness is worth the effort. We need to protect the lakes and rivers that make up the Boundary Waters. I am glad Gov. Mark Dayton agrees that the Boundary Waters is too precious to risk.”[18]


Take Action Now!!!


David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers ( He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation”[19] and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”[20]

Camp Dinner
Camp Dinner
Stu Osthoff's Ely Cabin
Stu Osthoff’s Ely Cabin
Darrell Spencer Paddling Out After the Hunt
Darrell Spencer Paddling Out After the Hunt


[1] Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of National Wildlife Federation, and Ted Roosevelt IV, the great-great grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, is a conservationist and sportsman. “Call of the wilderness seeks to save the Boundary Waters.” Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin: 4/6/16.

[2] Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of National Wildlife Federation, and Ted Roosevelt IV, the great-great grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, is a conservationist and sportsman. “Call of the wilderness seeks to save the Boundary Waters.” Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin: 4/6/16.

[3] Matthew Brown, Michael Biesecker and P. Solomon Banda. “National challenge of leaking mines dwarfs Colorado spill.” Associated Press: 8/13/15.

[4] Stuart Osthoff. “The Back Forty.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2015, p. 82.

[5] Stuart Osthoff. “Living on the Edge.” Whitetales: Summer 2008, p. 28.

[6] Zach Matthews. “Scott Hed’s New Fight … for Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.” Fly Rod & Reel: 8/15/16.

[7] Conor Mihell. “Protecting The Boundary Waters Canoe Area: America’s most popular federal wilderness is menaced by a giant copper-and-nickel mine.” Sierra: 10/19/16.

[8] Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, lives in Ely. “No way: Boundary Waters too precious for this risk.” Duluth News Tribune: 7/9/16.

[9] Josephine Marcotty. “Iron Range mine could pollute water for up to 500 years.” Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune: 10/7/13.

[10] Michael Johnson. “Within the boundaries: Adventurous couple returns after enjoying a year in the BWCAW.” Brainerd Dispatch: 10/10/16.

[11] Michael Johnson. “Within the boundaries: Adventurous couple returns after enjoying a year in the BWCAW.” Brainerd Dispatch: 10/10/16.

[12] Jenny Rowland. “Proposed Mining Site Threatens America’s Most Popular Wilderness Area.” 3/9/16.

[13] Scott Hed. “Please Sign On: Protect the BWCAW from Twin Metals mining threat.” Sportsman for the Boundary Waters: April 2016.

[14] Sam Cook. “Hunting whitetails in the Boundary Waters.” Duluth News Tribune: 11/14/10.

[15] Stuart Osthoff. “Consensus plan possible for October deer hunt in BWCAW.” The Timberjay: 3/18/09.

[16] Stuart Osthoff. “Help Wanted: Creating America’s Best Wilderness Deer Hunt.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2009, p. 65.

[17] Stuart Osthoff. “The Back Forty.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2015, p. 82.

[18] Darrell Spencer. “Thanks to Dayton for protecting wilderness.” Duluth News Tribune: 3/21/16.


[20] For additional information see: “David A. Lien Recognized by Field & Stream as ‘Hero of Conservation.’” 7/2/14.

Kevin Paulson

Kevin Paulson is the Founder and CEO of His passion for Hunting began at the age of 5 hunting alongside of his father. Kevin has followed his dreams through outfitting, conservation work, videography and hunting trips around the world.

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