Karibu at the center of culture and industry

Balancing industry and environmental interests is an ongoing issue for the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB).

Projects are quickly controversial when it comes to caribou. BMC Minerals’ Kudz Ze Kayah Project, Affecting the Finlayson Herd, Is Now in Court for Judicial Review; Western Copper and Gold’s Casino Project in the Klaza-Karibu Territory is now in its eighth year of evaluation; and Fireweed Zinc recently had conditions imposed to mitigate the impact of their drilling program on the Tay River caribou herd. The terms of Fireweed’s MacMillan Pass project included that “if caribou are observed within one kilometer of active work areas, activities are to cease until the caribou have cleared themselves.”

There are 26 forest and boreal caribou herds in the area, as well as the larger migratory herds that cross international borders. Many hundreds of thousands of caribou once roamed the Yukon, but since contact their numbers have declined drastically. Biologists acknowledge that caribou populations experience natural ebbs and flows, and that the factors affecting mortality, health and migration patterns are complex.

The Fortymile herd has been growing since 2017 and was hunted on both sides of the border in 2022, though to a significantly greater extent on the Alaska side. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in allowed a small hunt for cultural practices to continue. In August 2022, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game assessed the herd’s current habitat as too small to provide the animals with nutrition and set a hunting quota of 1,200 bulls, as the herd would need to be reduced for its own survival. This move was not well received in the Yukon.

The draft Dawson land use plan process protects only a small portion of the herd’s habitat. Northern Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park, Vuntut National Park and Old Crow Flats SAR pale in comparison to the size of the 78,000-square-kilometer Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the US side of the border.

The elders of Vuntut Gwitchin foresaw the devastation that would befall their way of life if the Porcupine Caribou herd were to decline. Elders in the 1980s instructed their young people to travel to Washington, DC to work to protect the calving grounds. Efforts to protect the ANWR from oil exploration continue to this day.

Caribou are delicate

Because caribou move and adapt to different circumstances, they are considered adaptable. However, the move from a well-suited main habitat to less affluent environments has implications for animal health and survival.

“Caribou are really sensitive to disturbance. You only have enough energy (fat stores) to walk in the winter to fly,” said John Meikle, a planner who has worked in the Yukon for decades.

This means caribou are easily startled but tend not to flee to conserve their energy. This makes them vulnerable to collisions with vehicles.

In 2021, eight caribou-vehicle collisions occurred near the Southern Lakes. This number remains constant from previous years, with most collisions occurring in the Jake’s Corner area. The data show that females tend to be killed more often than larger males.

But not all collisions involving Yukon caribou occur in this area. In the spring of 2022, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) was devastated by news that a fast-moving truck collided with a group of animals on a section of the South Klondike Highway in British Columbia. Two of the four animals were pregnant, increasing the loss to the herd.

Kelsey Russell, a Yukon government caribou biologist, says an “intergovernmental task force on wildlife collisions” has been established. Fish and wildlife management has created posters and put up highway signs in some high-risk areas. Vehicles are one threat, but habitat fragmentation is another.

One of the main complaints from C/TFN elders concerns problems arising from frequent parcel subdivisions – which means more dog-team trails and recreational snowmobiles startle sleeping caribou.

“There are many ways that human intervention in the landscape can affect caribou beyond direct habitat removal, but you also fragment habitats — you don’t have these large intact areas,” Russell said. The Southern Lakes area has no regional land use plans and is home to over 2,000 residences scattered throughout traditional caribou lands.

There is also the problem of noise. A BMC Minerals screening report cites a mitigation strategy that involves regular scheduled flights from its runway to avoid disturbing caribou in their wintering grounds.

“It’s getting more and more of that sensory side of things, so the habitat might still be there. But they’re driven off because of sensory disturbances – people or vehicles or blasts or whatever, the activity in that area. And then there are other things like increased predation,” Russell said. Mine development, by definition, is problematic for caribou on many fronts – surface disturbances, traffic, blasting and aircraft.

spiritual connections

Yukon First Nations have traditionally tracked food and animals in harmony with the changing seasons. Signs of the changing course of Chinook salmon were first noticed in Teslin as the fish changed age and size. Population growth and residential development drastically reduced the Southern Lakes caribou.

C/TFN voluntarily stopped harvesting caribou over 30 years ago with the establishment of the Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery Program. Now three generations have gone without it, and children are losing the cultural lessons that come with knowing the caribou way of life.

That’s what the Hatchet Lake Voyeur Canoe Team said news in June that the reason Denesuliné (a Dene language) was spoken as a native language in her community in northern Saskatchewan was because of the caribou. “We take the kids to the country and teach them how to harvest in our language,” Chief Bart Tsania said.

Just as the near extinction of the Chinook salmon has erased the family experience of “fish camps” along the Yukon and its tributaries, the loss of caribou threatens the demise of a “way of life.” Efforts to protect the various herds to feed those who depend on them continue – with different First Nations taking different approaches, from the lobbying efforts of the Vuntut Gwitchin to the legal strategies of the Kaska Nations.

Last November, C/TFN hosted the Southern Lakes Caribou Summit with the six southern lake nations. A summary of the event reads: “There were feelings of incredible hope and appreciation for the caribou, as well as pride in the recovery plan implemented 30 years ago that has allowed their population to thrive.”

The Indigenous How We Walk the Land and the Water initiative emphasizes seasonal considerations in relation to the movement of animals across the land – for example, the movement of caribou from high summer areas to lower wintering grounds and on to more clustered calving grounds. As anyone who has navigated the Dempster Highway during the migration knows, cars and vehicles have to wait for the caribou to cross the road.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at lawrie.crawford@yukon-news.com

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