Tracking Yukon’s wildlife

Elk are eating a Takhini Valley rancher out of hay and home. They’ve chewed up more than $20,000 worth of feed and they’re sleeping in…

Elk are eating a Takhini Valley rancher out of hay and home.

They’ve chewed up more than $20,000 worth of feed and they’re sleeping in the yard, Alan Young told the News last month.

In the past, there hasn’t been a great need to count elk, and other animals ambling around the Yukon.

But changing times and a changing climate are pushing the territory to take stock of its living, breathing, baa-ing, growling and snorting assets.

“There hasn’t been a thorough inventory for elk, to my knowledge, ever in the Yukon,” said biodiversity biologist Tom Jung.

“They’ve not been a species that’s been of high management concern, but now, with the population growing, there is interest in harvesting such animals.”

Fuelled by an “extraordinary” amount of one-time funding, the department is finally counting its elk and further surveying other animals, like wood bison, moose and mountain goats.

Biologists call it ‘inventory’ and, like grocery store employees counting cans of tinned peas on a shelf, the Yukon’s biologists take stock of the territory’s wildlife to help plan for the future.

The survey results are used to create hunting guidelines and gauge the impact of new infrastructure and industry on local wildlife.

In the case of elk, biologists are trying to determine whether the species can handle a harvest, and, if so, how many can be hunted.

“There’s a need to know what’s out there and what’s going to be affected,” said fish and wildlife branch director Harvey Jessup.

Global climate change is also pushing local governments to take stock of what they have now in order to see how things may change, or how they’ll stay the same.

“There’s all kinds of anecdotal information around the way populations have been changing in terms of distribution and species,” said Jessup.

“We have to be on top of it.”

In August 2006, Environment received nearly $500,000 in one-time funding. This was added to the approximately $150,000 already allocated for surveys.

For the department, the new money was overdue.

“Like everybody, our projects have been affected by increased costs,” said Jessup.

“Helicopters were once $400 an hour, now they’re $1,000, so our purchasing power has been dwindling but the demands and need and interest for more information has been increasing.

“In terms of the cost of living, our budget should be anywhere between three- and five-times what they are,” said Jessup.

Though Yukon biologists are heralding the importance of the new surveys, the increased funding has not been secured for future years.

The current government has expressed an interest in further funding inventory projects in the territory, but it’s too early to put a dollar figure on its commitment, said Jessup.

“We always ask, we don’t always get,” he added.

About half of the planned surveys were done in the fall, and the other half will go ahead in March.

The surveys completed so far have simply confirmed biologists’ suspicions, said Jung.

“The real value of the surveys is to see if you can repeat them over time.”

The department is also planning to host an Environmental Forum slated for late March where government, First Nations, local renewable resource councils and NGOs will meet to discuss wildlife data collection.