Off roading over objections

It didn't take long for the howling to begin when we suggested here last week that the growing popularity of all-terrain vehicles is causing certain wildlife populations to plummet. What a load of hooey, the naysayers blared. Bunch of nonsense.

It didn’t take long for the howling to begin when we suggested here last week that the growing popularity of all-terrain vehicles is causing certain wildlife populations to plummet.

What a load of hooey, the naysayers blared. Bunch of nonsense.

We can only suppose that these freedom-loving critics possess greater knowledge than a guy like Manfred Hoefs, a respected biologist who worked for the territory’s wildlife branch for 30 years. Because in Hoefs’s mind, there’s no doubt that ATVs are to blame for shrinking populations of Dall sheep in places like Pilot Mountain.

That spot, just north of Whitehorse, would be an obvious place to look for the impact of growing ATV use. It just so happens that an explosion in ATV activity there matches up with a decade-long slide in the area’s sheep population, precipitating a permit hunt. Weird, huh?

Biologists like Hoefs would note a variety of reasons for these sheep declines. There’s the obvious: more access means more hunters, with what was once a long trek by horse being reduced to a several-hour ATV ride.

There’s also the subtle: sheep are particularly sensitive to disturbances, and become easily spooked by noisy machines. Occasional racket by vehicles may be no big deal, but when this becomes a regular occurrence, it may mean that the animals spend a few cumulative hours every day being frightened, rather than eating, and this affects reproduction rates. These disturbances may not even be evident to riders, as sheep don’t need to be in sight to be frightened.

Hoefs would likely note that ATV restrictions appear to have a positive impact on sheep. Back in 1988, the territory limited these vehicles to designated trails in the southern parts of the Ruby Range in order to protect sheep populations. Sanctioned trails stayed within the valley and didn’t cut past the treeline. This seems to have worked: the area’s sheep populations remained open to hunting and no permit hunts were needed, unlike nearby areas that remained accessible to ATVs.

But, of course, we now know this is just a bunch of idiocy being spouted by patchouli-reeking hippies, so pay no mind and rip away.

Sadly for the freedom fighters, Hoefs isn’t the only one who takes seriously the deranged idea that riding ATVs through sensitive habitat is less than harmless for nearby wildlife.

In 2009, both Lake Laberge’s renewable resource council and the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board concluded that Pilot Mountain’s sheep were at risk. Crazily, those bongo-drum-playing degenerates proposed to restrict ATV access to the area as a fix. Thankfully, our level-headed political leadership decided otherwise.

(Our environment minister of the day, Elaine Taylor, objected that it would be unfair to restrict access with wildlife regulations, as this would discriminate against hunters while allowing recreational riders to carry on as usual. Curiously, now that the government is looking to ban all ATV users access from sensitive areas, the exact opposite objection is being made by naysayers: if wildlife declines are a problem, they should be handled with hunting restrictions. Who says you can’t have it both ways?)

When three new permit hunts were introduced in Fish Lake in 2010, prompted by biologists’ fears that there were few rams left in the blocks, outfitters were quick to make the connection between this and ATV access. Kooky, we know.

There’s also the inconvenient fact that more than half of Yukon’s sheep hunters believe ATV use should be restricted, according to a survey conducted in 1997. One-quarter of those hunters would have preferred to see ATVs banned entirely, while another 39 per cent wanted them restricted to designated routes and to stop below the treeline.

Wonder what they were smoking before they answered those survey questions, huh?

Even scarier: In March 2012, the board of the Yukon Fish and Game Association revised its policy on ATVs after consulting with its membership. Along with developing a code of ethics for its ATV-riding members, the association supports the creation of new rules for ATVs, including a requirement that the machines be registered and licensed. Oh, the association also supports restricting ATVs from sensitive areas and – wait for it – to protect wildlife.

Nutcases.

Such unrelenting mistrust opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Y’know how ATVs are faulted for creating ugly scars that will take decades to heal in Yukon’s fragile alpine meadows and wetlands? Well, maybe those vehicles aren’t to blame. Maybe it’s UFOs instead.

And once it’s firmly established that regulating ATVs is an unconscionable impingement upon liberty, then we can start talking about rolling back other frivolous laws, like speed limits and prohibitions against drunk driving. But let’s take this one step at a time. 

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