ATVs faulted for dwindling Dall sheep numbers

Dall sheep are disappearing from the mountains near Whitehorse, provoking the territory to pursue permit hunts in three areas now unrestricted.

Dall sheep are disappearing from the mountains near Whitehorse, provoking the territory to pursue permit hunts in three areas now unrestricted.

Case in point: when wildlife biologists surveyed the area surrounding Fish Lake for rams last year, they didn’t spot one. In 1994, when a similar count was conducted, they had found 40.

“Our concern is that there are just no rams left in this block,” said Troy Hegel, the territory’s sheep biologist.

Rams ought to make up at least four per cent of a self-sustaining sheep population, according to biologists. The number of rams has fallen below this threshold in all three hunting subzones in question.

The situation is most critical at Fish Lake. Under the proposed regulation, there would be a maximum of one sheep-hunting permit issued for the subzone.

Fifteen hunting permits would be issued at two other subzones. One encompasses Mount Arkell and Mount Ingram. The other abuts the northeast end of Kusawa Lake.

The reason for this decline was no mystery to hunters attending a public meeting hosted by the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board at the High Country Inn on Monday evening.

It’s all-terrain vehicles.

Taking a sheep off a mountain once required a week-long excursion by pack horse. Now, thanks to ATVs, it’s possible to make a return trip from Whitehorse in a few hours.

“If access is the issue, then maybe access is what needs to be addressed,” said Tim Mervyn, president of the Yukon Outfitters Association. “By permitting piecemeal, you’re putting additional pressure on other areas.”

It started with Pilot Mountain. In the summer of 2009, the territory imposed a six-permit limit on the popular sheep-hunting area because of fears raised over the dwindling number of rams.

“Now we’re losing these three,” said Mervyn. He wondered what would be next.

“If access is the problem, then deal with access.”

It’s not a new idea. The Lake Laberge Renewable Resources Council wanted to ban ATVs from travelling beyond the treeline on Pilot Mountain. But the territory nixed the politically sensitive proposal and introduced a permit hunt instead.

Since then, two competing pressure groups have emerged that propose different plans to restrict ATVs across the Yukon.

The Trails Only Yukon Association wants ATVs kept on designated trails, and away from sensitive alpine areas. The Yukon Off-Road Riders Association would prefer to see a law against damaging the environment and more rider education.

Environment Minister John Edzerza has taken a hands-off approach until an all-party committee that’s investigating ATV concerns reports back to the legislature. Its deadline was recently rolled back to the spring.

Others who spoke at Monday’s meeting echoed Mervyn’s concerns. Peter Harms likes hunting sheep, and he always parks his ATV at the treeline. He’s accustomed to watching quads rip past him as he hikes.

“I just shake my head,” he said. “It’s too many guys going up there and it’s too easy.”

The solution? “If you really want a sheep, you work for it,” said Harms. “It worked in the past, it’ll work in the future.”

Dave Dixon also worries about the domino-effect of shifting hunting pressure wiping out other subzones. He’s an outfitter, and this would be bad for business.

“Harvesting isn’t the problem,” he said. “If you’re going to deal with this in 20 years, then you’ll see a problem. Let’s do something now.”

Much of the mud ruts left by ATVs near the Wheaton River isn’t the work of hunters, said Adam Grinde, a member of the Teslin renewable resource council. “It’s just people ripping up and down.”

Like others, he felt that new permit hunts won’t fix the problem. And, as a result, “hunting is taking the hit,” he said.

John Carney, president of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, worried the Fish Lake sheep survey may have been incomplete. But that’s not so, said Hegel. “It was probably one of the most comprehensive surveys we’ve ever done,” he said.

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