Environment Minister Elaine Taylor’s plan to restrict the hunting of Dall sheep on Pilot Mountain has a certain elegance to it.
She hopes to shoot two rams with one bullet, so to speak.
By restricting what was previously an open hunting season to the annual release of six sheep permits, it’s hoped that not only will the poor number of rams on the mountain rebound, but that the number of all-terrain vehicles tearing up the fragile alpine tundra will shrink as well.
Fewer hunters means fewer ATV ruts, Taylor and her staff reason.
Taylor’s plan also allows her to step around a political landmine: the explosive issue of whether ATV use should be restricted in sensitive areas.
It’s smart politics. Whether it’s smart policy is questioned by the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board and the Lake Laberge Renewable Resources Council.
They say it’s high time for the territory to consider how to limit the damage caused by ATVs in Yukon’s hinterland, starting with Pilot Mountain.
The area, just north of Whitehorse beyond the Takhini Hot Springs, is favoured by resident hunters as an easy place to bag a Dall sheep.
It’s one of the few places where resident hunters don’t need to compete with outfitters.
And Pilot Mountain’s rams develop big, curled horns more than a year earlier than is common.
Taking a sheep off the mountain once required a week-long excursion by pack horse. Now it’s possible to make a return trip from Whitehorse in a few hours, thanks to all-terrain vehicles.
But ATVs are taking their toll on the mountain, and on the sheep.
A growing network of ATV trails now snake their way through the mountain’s forests and fragile alpine areas.
What begins as a pair of tracks soon grows into what resembles a braided stream, as ATVs stuck in the mud divert to form crisscrossing tracks.
Heavy rain or thawing snow later turns these alpine tracks into gullies. Erosion spreads.
The damage may take decades to heal.
To address the problem, Laberge’s renewable resource council, with the support of the wildlife management board, proposed that ATVs be restricted to established trails in Pilot Mountain’s sub-alpine forest. And, upon reaching the treeline, ATV users would be expect to park in designated lots and proceed by foot.
Taylor rejected the plan, along with a related proposal to ban sheep hunting on Pilot Mountain for two years to allow the ram population to recover.
She stated several reasons for her decision to set aside ATV restrictions.
First, such restrictions would be unfair, because, as a wildlife regulation, they would only apply to hunters.
Recreational ATV users and First Nation hunters would be able to flout the rules with impunity.
True enough, the management board replied. But a restriction that’s unevenly applied is better than none at all, they maintain.
Such restrictions are also not unheard of. Hunters are already prohibited from using ATVs in the Kluane’s Ruby Range.
Second, the problem of ATVs damaging Pilot Mountain had to be studied further, said Taylor.
“That’s ridiculous. They have studied it,” said Manfred Hoefs, a respected biologist who worked for the territory’s wildlife branch for 30 years.
Now retired, Hoefs helps Lake Laberge’s renewable resources council.
“ATVs have done damage and that can’t be ignored,” he said.
Last year, wildlife officials set up motion-sensor cameras on Pilot Mountain’s main trails between August and October. They
recorded 165 visitors. Fifty eight were hunters. It’s unclear how many rode ATVs, say department officials.
By comparison, in the late 1980s only 10 people per year, in four or five parties, were reported to hunt in the area.
A similar motion-sensor study will be conducted this year.
ATV damage to Pilot Mountain was noted nine years ago in a report prepared for the wildlife management board.
“Motorized recreational use of this area has swelled,” the report states.
“Off-road vehicle tracks and trails are seen on ridges, passes and in valleys throughout the alpine zone.
“Off-road vehicles have been seen on ridges above sheep on more than one occasion.
“As a result, the sheep are reported to be more nervous and skittish than they were a decade ago.
More than half of Yukon’s sheep hunters believe ATV use should be restricted, according to a survey conducted in 1997, the report states.
“Over 26 per cent of Yukon sheep hunters would ban off-road vehicles entirely, while 39 per cent would restrict them to designated routes and stop them below treeline.
“Clearly, in the view of many hunters, off-road vehicles constitute a problem, which is not being addressed.”
More recently, during a symposium held by the wildlife management board in November, a majority of the 150 people who attended raised their hands during a poll of who supported ATV restrictions, said Hoefs.
Government biologists privately worry that unrestricted ATV use may spoil the hinterland, said Hoefs. But senior officials make it clear they aren’t to rock the boat on ATV use.
It’s politics. ATV users vote; sheep can’t.
It is unclear whose job it is to create ATV restrictions for all society, if it’s not the Environment Department. It could be the lands branch, which has, in the past, created local land-use plans.
But there’s no sign Taylor has urged them to take up the problem.
Nor is there any hint of the lands branch developing such a plan on its own initiative.
And it’s puzzling that Environment staff claim to not know what proportion of Pilot Mountain’s traffic is made up of ATVs after conducting last year’s study.
Hunters were identified in motion-triggered photographs by the rifles they carried.
But ATVs were not counted, said Rob Florkiewicz, manager of species programs.
It’s almost as if they don’t want to know.
We’re left with a strange irony: Yukon’s land-use planners are busy drawing up schemes to save the furthest-flung bits of wilderness, such as the Peel Watershed.
Meanwhile, the hinterland at Whitehorse’s doorstep, which is being trampled the hardest, goes unprotected.
Contact John Thompson at email@example.com.