The Peel’s wilderness is priceless

As a co-author of the conservation assessment that informed the Peel Watershed Planning Commission's final recommended plan, I am familiar with the tremendous conservation values this region harbours.

COMMENTARY

by Don Reid

As a co-author of the conservation assessment that informed the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s final recommended plan, I am familiar with the tremendous conservation values this region harbours and the challenges in making decisions about its future.

I’d like to emphasize the world-class conservation opportunity the region represents. This opportunity would be lost if the Yukon government’s current rejection of the commission’s vision is upheld.

The territorial government has proposed four other scenarios for zoning land in the Peel. These fail to treat the watershed and its legendary values with the respect required.

The government has labelled special management areas as protected areas, but states that permits will continue to be issued for existing rights (e.g., staked claims).

Although the government has chosen to place protected areas where there are fewest existing claims, these so-called protected areas are still open to mineral exploration and development on existing claims. These are not truly protected areas.

Also, they will comprise only 14 per cent to 36 per cent of the region, and will, in most scenarios, be relegated to small, separated parcels within the large drainages. Studies in boreal Canada have already demonstrated that this patchwork approach will not safeguard biodiversity values when landscapes open up for development.

The Yukon government has renamed wilderness areas as “restricted use wilderness areas,” a subset of which will be river corridors along the four prime wilderness rivers. In total, these restricted areas will occupy 38 per cent to 60 per cent of the region.

These will not, however, be true wilderness areas, because new land uses and roads will be permitted, and bridge crossings will be allowed over the rivers. The Yukon government proposes “active management” and “protecting viewscapes” along the rivers. Their proposed management actions only address slight tightening of conditions under which mineral exploration will be permitted. Also, the river corridors are clearly too narrow to keep all human intrusion out of view from the rivers, and especially so from the various ridgeline hikes that are central to the wilderness experience.

All of this misses the point about wilderness. Wilderness is the ability to experience intact natural landscapes without motorized vehicles, and large enough that all our senses experience only raw nature. Such opportunities are now rare in most of the Yukon with its wide network of off-road vehicle trails, so the Peel is a special region for wilderness.

Spatial scale is crucial for conservation, but particularly so in the North, where short growing seasons and poor soils limit plant production such that herbivores spread themselves more widely to find food. A self-sustaining protected area needs to be large enough to encompass full populations of large mammals.

Even a protected area the size of the Peel drainage (67,000 sq. km) would not be large enough to cover the winter range of the Porcupine caribou herd (at least 90,000 sq. km). However, the commission’s final recommended plan did allow for the protection of nearly the entire annual range of the Bonnet Plume caribou herd (23,000 sq. km).

This would be the first protected area in the Yukon, and one of the first in Canada, to come close to protection for the entire range of a woodland caribou herd. Such an opportunity needs to be grasped now, because the majority of these woodland herds facing even modest levels of industrial development (with roads and transmission lines) are now in decline.

Other ecological factors, notably fire and connectivity of aquatic ecosystems, point to the need for large protected areas covering entire drainages. Protected areas have to be several times larger than the largest fire expected for a region so that all habitat types, including old forests, can still be found after a single event.

Unpolluted and unobstructed river systems are key to the sustenance of migratory fish that are central to Gwich’in subsistence economy, as well as many other organisms comprising the aquatic ecosystem. Long river stretches can be spoiled by upstream pollution, with leaching from mine tailings being a substantial risk.

Across this country, existing protected areas are proving too small as they are frequently unable to protect the species and ecosystems that are their focus. The Peel watershed offers an unusual, and highly valuable, opportunity to act on the vision of large conserved drainages, but most of the protection zones in the Yukon government’s scenarios are too small and vulnerable to upstream effects.

The Peel watershed’s planning commissioners emphasized the Peel’s conservation values because they realized how special these are to Yukoners and Canadians. These cannot be matched elsewhere in the territory, and are globally significant. In the ongoing public consultations regarding the future of this magnificent region, the Peel commission’s final recommended plan is the best option for real conservation and a sustained future for wildlife.

Don Reid is a conservation zoologist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. He lives in Whitehorse.