A Southern Lakes caribou pose while foraging near Golden Horn Mountain on January 2, 2023. The southern lakes caribou are protected from hunting. (Mark Kelly/Yukon News)

A Southern Lakes caribou pose while foraging near Golden Horn Mountain on January 2, 2023. The southern lakes caribou are protected from hunting. (Mark Kelly/Yukon News)

Caribou at the crux of culture and industry

Caribou especially sensitive to mining disturbance in spite of mitigation efforts

Reconciling industrial and enviromental interests is a continual problem for the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economicAssessment Board (YESAB).

Projects have quickly become controversial when caribou are involved. BMC Minerals’ Kudz Ze Kayah project affecting the Finlayson herd is now before the courts for judicial review; Western Copper and Gold’s Casino project in Klaza caribou territory is now into its eighth year of assessment; and conditions have been recently imposed on Fireweed Zinc to mitigate effects of their drilling program on the Tay River caribou herd. Conditions for Fireweed’s project in the MacMillan Pass included that “if caribou are observable within one kilometre of active work areas, activities shall cease until the caribou have moved away on their own accord.”

There are 26 woodland and boreal caribou herds in the territory, plus the larger migratory herds that traverse international borders. There used to be many hundreds of thousands of caribou roaming the Yukon, but numbers have been drastically reduced since contact. Biologists admit there is a natural ebb and flow to caribou populations, and that the factors affecting mortality, health and migration patterns are complex.

The Fortymile herd has been growing since 2017 and in 2022 was hunted on both sides of the border, though to a significantly greater extent on the Alaska side. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in allowed a small hunt to proceed 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 nutritionally sustain the animals and set a hunt quota of 1,200 bulls, saying that the herd needs to be reduced for its own survival. This move has not been well-regarded in Yukon. 

The draft Dawson land use plan process only protects a small portion of the herd’s habitat. Ivvavik National Park, Vuntut National Park and Old Crow Flats Special Management Area in northern Yukon pale in comparison to the size of the 78,000 sq. km (19.2 million acres) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the U.S. side of the border.

Vuntut Gwitchin elders foresaw the devastation that would occur to their way of life if the Porcupine Caribou herd went into decline. Elders instructed their young people to travel to Washington, D.C., in the 1980s to lobby for the calving grounds’ protection. Efforts to protect ANWR from oil development continue to this day.

Caribou are sensitive

Because caribou move around and adjust to different circumstances, they are viewed as adaptive. However, moving from well-suited prime habitat to less rich settings has consequences for the health and survival of the animals.

“Caribou are really disturbance sensitive. They only have so much energy (fat reserves) in the winter to take to running, to take flight,” said John Meikle, a planner who has worked in the Yukon for decades.

This means that caribou are easily frightened, but tend not to flee in order to conserve their energy. This makes them susceptible to collision with vehicles.

In 2021, there were eight caribou-vehicular collisions in the vicinity of the Southern Lakes. This number runs constant with previous years, with the majority of collisions in the Jake’s Corner area. Data shows that more female animals tend to be killed than the larger males.

But not all the collisions that affect Yukon caribou take place in the territory. In spring of 2022, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) was devastated with the news of a fast-moving truck colliding with a group of animals on the British Columbia section of the South Klondike highway. Two of the four animals were pregnant, increasing the loss for the herd.

Kelsey Russell, a Yukon government caribou biologist, says an “intergovernmental interdepartmental wildlife collisions working group” has been established. The fish and wildlife management board has created posters and highway signage has been placed in some high-risk areas. Vehicles are one threat, but habitat fragmentation is another.

One of the main complaints by C/TFN elders is about problems arising from frequent lot subdivisions – which means more dog team trails and recreational snowmobiles to startle sleeping caribou.

“There’s a lot of ways that human disturbance on the landscape can affect caribou beyond just that direct removal of habitat, but you’re also fragmenting habitats— you don’t have those large intact areas,” said Russell. The Southern Lakes area is without any regional land use plans and is home to over 2,000 residences scattered throughout the traditional caribou areas.

There is also the problem of noise. A BMC Minerals screening report cites a mitigation strategy that calls for regularly scheduled flights from its airstrip so to not disturb caribou in their wintering grounds.

“That’s getting more of that sensory side of things, so the habitat might still be there. But they are displaced from it because of sensory disturbances — people or vehicles or blasting or whatever, the activity around that area. And then there’s other things like increased predation,” Russell said. Mine development by its very definition is problematic for caribou on many fronts — surface disturbance, traffic, blasting and aircraft.

Spiritual connections

Yukon First Nations have traditionally followed food and animals in accordance with the changing seasons. Signs of the changing Chinook salmon run were first noticed in Teslin when the age and size of the fish changed. Population growth and residential infill 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, and children are losing the cultural instruction that comes with knowing the ways of the caribou.

The Hatchet Lake voyeur canoe team told the News in June that the reason Denesuliné (a Dene language) was spoken as a first language in their northern Saskatchewan community was because of the caribou. “We take the children on the land and we teach them how to harvest in our language,” said Chief Bart Tsannia.

So just as the near extinction of chinook salmon has eliminated the family experience of “fish camps” along the Yukon River and its tributaries, the loss of caribou also threatens the demise of a “way of life.” Efforts continue to protect the various herds to sustain the people who depend on them— with different First Nations using different approaches, from the lobbying efforts of the Vuntut Gwitchin to the legal strategies of the Kaska Nations.

This past November, C/TFN hosted the Southern Lakes Caribou Summit with the six southern lakes nations. A summation of the event reads, “There were sentiments of incredible hope and appreciation for the caribou as well as pride for the recovery plan, implemented 30 years ago, which has allowed their population to grow.”

The Indigenous How We Walk with the Land and the Water initiative stresses seasonal considerations respecting the movement of animals across the land — for instance the movement of caribou from high summer ranges to lower wintering grounds and on to more clustered calving areas. As anyone who has travelled the Dempster Highway during migration knows — cars and vehicles must wait for the caribou to cross the road.

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