Spring is here, and trucks around the territory are being loaded up with ATVs set for Yukon’s vast wilderness.
Above the tree line, there’s nothing stopping ATV users blazing their own trail across mountain tops. They are free to go where the wind blows.
But that freedom comes at a cost. Wet alpine meadows are easily rutted by ATV tires this time of year. The damage could take decades to heal.
Sheep populations are easily disturbed and displaced during the sensitive lambing season.
The government has said it will take action to protect Yukon’s sensitive environments, but won’t say when.
That has members of the Trails Only Yukon Association worried.
With increased use of ATVs across the territory, the damage from another season of unrestricted use could be significant, said Vern Peters, a member of the group’s steering committee. Trails Only would like to see some interim protections while the government works on a long-term plan.
“We’re concerned, when you see people coming up from Prince George and Dawson Creek with a lot of ATVs on their trailers. I’ve had a number of people talk to me at the trade show at our booth and say, ‘Hey Vern, you wouldn’t believe what we saw north of Faro, how many ATVs, some of them are from the Yukon and some of them are from outside the Yukon and they have whole convoys going into the wilderness.’”
Yukon is the last jurisdiction in North America to restrict ATV use through legislation in some way, said Peters.
“Every single jurisdiction that we’ve looked at and researched has said the same thing. They finally put in some boundaries, but they all have said, ‘We wish we would have done this 10 or 15 years ago.’”
“The reason that they have it is because of the damage that was being done prior to them having legislation,” added Ellen Johnson, another member of the group. “Right now we’re sitting very much in the caboose of the train. Everybody else has moved ahead.”
The Yukon first identified ATV damage as an issue in 1981, when the Department of Renewable Resources conducted a poll of 1,800 hunters in the territory. Fourteen per cent supported zero restrictions for ATV use, and 43 per cent called for a total ban on using ATVs for hunting.
Thirty-two years later, there has been a lot of talk about the regulation of ATVs in the Yukon, but not a lot of action.
Again today, the government says it is working on it.
The Select Committee on Safe Operation and Use of Off-Road Vehicles developed 14 recommendations, which were presented to the legislative assembly in March 2011.
The government has committed to act on those recommendations, including developing a legislative or regulatory framework that would protect sensitive areas from damage.
But the government won’t say when restrictions will be in place.
Resources Minister Brad Cathers confirmed yesterday that the government is not interested in a territory-wide approach. Instead, sensitive areas will be protected on a case-by-case basis.
“This all-party committee unanimously agreed that taking a targeted approach was the best way and we needed to ensure that legislation had the appropriate tools to target measures to where problems exist or are developing.”
But waiting until problems develop doesn’t work, said Peters.
It’s a scenario that is already playing out in sensitive alpine areas close to Whitehorse.
Three bulldozed trails lead to the edge of the tree line at Pilot Mountain, north of Whitehorse.
From there, a web of trails snake out across the alpine area, according to Trails Only.
With increased usage, sheep populations have declined, resulting in hunting restrictions.
But restricting hunting pushes hunters to the next mountain, said Peters.
Now, the same pattern is happening at Mt. Ingram and Mt. Arkell, where hunting restrictions have more recently been implemented.
The result of this reactionary approach is a domino effect that simply pushes the problem around, said Peters.
He would like to see motorized-vehicle use stopped at the tree line. Hunters and other users of the alpine area could continue on foot.
The association is also concerned about wetlands, where nesting birds and other wildlife are easily disturbed and displaced.
“If you stop and think about Swan Haven, if people start taking ATVs out onto the ice, which they have in the past, the birds are chased away before they’ve had time to rest and feed,” said Johnson. “And then they die en route to their nesting grounds, because they haven’t had that staging time that they need to continue the flight.”
In the bigger picture, Trails Only would like to see designated trails established across the Yukon.
That would involve mapping out existing trails, and prohibiting or restricting the use of motorized vehicles off of those trails.
That would be a good-news story for everyone, said Peters. It would improve ATV access by letting people know where the trails are and how to get there, while keeping ATVs out of sensitive areas.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at