The Carcross/Tagish Renewable Resources Council is asking drivers to slow down on highways in the Southern Lakes region to avoid collisions with caribou.
Council co-chair Ken Reeder said the Carcross caribou are now on their wintering grounds, which include parts of the Alaska Highway, particularly between Marsh Lake and Jakes Corner, and parts of the South Klondike Highway around Carcross.
“When you’re driving, just watch for them,” Reeder said. “We don’t want to have collisions.”
The council has put up posters at the weigh scales in Whitehorse and in other public buildings warning people to slow down.
He pointed out that at this time of year, many female caribou are pregnant. If they’re hit, he said, it’s like taking two animals out of the population.
Reeder hasn’t heard of any accidents so far this year, but in the past, he said, up to a dozen collisions with caribou have been reported in a single winter.
Despite those incidents, Reeder said the Carcross caribou herd is doing well.
In the early 1990s, he said, the herd hit a low point of about 200 animals. Today, that number has grown to about 750, and the nearby Ibex herd is roughly the same size. Those two herds, together with the Atlin herd, are collectively known as the Southern Lakes caribou herds.
“It’s a real success story,” Reeder said, pointing out that many Canadian caribou herds are declining rapidly. The northern mountain caribou population, which includes the Southern Lakes herds, was listed as a species of special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2005.
Reeder said the success is due to strict management of the herds, including a voluntary hunting ban adopted by six First Nations, including the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
That voluntary ban has now been in place for 26 years, he said, and it’s taken a toll.
“That’s been a long haul. The First Nations have lost a lot of their traditional values (from) harvesting caribou.”
Reeder said many First Nation citizens don’t have the opportunity to learn skills like tanning hides or making tools from caribou bones the way they used to.
“It’s been a hard time,” he said. “There’s young people now, like children, that have never seen a caribou butchered, never tasted caribou meat.”
But the sacrifice does seem to be paying off. Reeder said the Southern Lakes caribou herds are growing slowly, and the animals look healthy.
He said the First Nations will consider reinstating a caribou harvest when the combined population of all the herds reaches about 2,500 animals.
“It looks like we might make that if we all do our part.”
But the caribou do still face threats from development on their habitat. About 80 per cent of the Yukon’s population lives in the range of the Carcross caribou, and their habitat has been fragmented by roads, communities, and other development.
Reeder said the Carcross/Tagish Renewable Resources Council works to protect caribou habitat by submitting comments during the assessment process for development applications in the Southern Lakes region.
Last year, a controversial placer mining proposal near Judas Creek was denied in large part because of concern for the Carcross caribou herd.
Reeder said that project would have had “huge” impacts on the herd. Even spot land applications for rural residential properties have an effect, he said.
“Everyone wants a piece of the Yukon, but every little acre that’s taken in prime habitat… that hurts them.”
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org