Art Johns, 75, doesn’t need to be told the Southern Lakes moose population is in crappy shape.
The Carcross elder has watched the decline with his own eyes.
That’s why he is here, overlooking the massive Wheaton River Valley from his vantage point high up on the switchback of a mining road.
He grips a pair of binoculars. He’s looking for poachers.
There’s no sign of any today. Nor is there much evidence of animals, either. The valley appears bereft of life, other than a lone raven that circles overhead.
“We don’t even have rabbits as much. The gophers are gone. You don’t even see grouse anymore,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Johns flew in a plane over the valley. Everywhere he looked he saw black dots. They were moose.
But in less than 20 years, the once-thriving moose population here has been cut in half. Mining roads that scratch across the valley have opened the area up to easy access by truck and ATV.
In 1987, the herd’s number was estimated at 1,800. In 2002, the herd’s size was believed to be 800.
Who shot the moose?
A poster produced with Yukon government money suggests high numbers of moose had been shot by First Nation hunters.
But in Johns’ mind, the biggest culprits are poachers from Whitehorse.
Wheaton River Valley is “at the doorstep” of the territory’s capital, just a 45-minute drive away.
How big is the poaching problem?
“Big, big, big.”
Not long ago, he saw a truck with three moose heads dangling out the trailer.
Hunters come here from all over. Johns has seen licence plates from the Northwest Territories, Alaska and BC. He’s even met hunters from Old Crow, visiting Whitehorse for a meeting.
Many don’t understand they need permission from the Tagish/Carcross First Nation to hunt here.
Johns is a member of the First Nation’s lands-use team. He rides in his Toyota RAV4 with another elder, Ted Hall, 73.
Nearby, two younger members of the team roar up the mountain-side on all-terrain vehicles.
Together, they amount to the long arm of the law in these parts, where Johns and fellow team members have not seen a conservation officer for years.
The patrols began in September to deter illegal hunting. They’re out here every day.
It’s not an easy job. Johns and fellow wildlife monitors have no enforcement powers.
They can’t issue fines. Nor can they order anyone to produce the forms they’re supposed to have.
Proposed changes to Yukon’s Wildlife Act would give Johns and other team members the power to enforce rules set by their First Nation. But this isn’t expected to happen for another two years.
In the meantime, they are armed only with persuasion.
They often hear several suspicious explanations from hunters who roam the valley without the proper papers.
An armed guy on an ATV will say he’s just out for a ride.
Or a hunter will produce a small game licence, although he’s toting a rifle that’s of a calibre appropriate for shooting big game, rather than grouse.
This raises eyebrows. But all the lands team can do is report the suspicious activity to the wildlife branch.
Some people get angry when asked to produce their hunting permit and permission sheet.
“Some people get pretty offended,” says Johns. “We have a hell of a time.”
All hunting is supposed to be reported to the First Nation’s lands office. It doesn’t matter if the hunter is native or not.
But it’s obvious to the lands team such reporting doesn’t always happen. As a result, nobody knows how many moose are being shot.
The Yukon government issues 11 hunting tags for moose each year to licensed hunters in the Southern Lakes region. Only a few of these hunters usually report they are successful.
About seven First Nation beneficiaries have reported moose kills this season, says the lands team. But Johns and his team know there have been more.
But it’s highly unlikely most moose are being shot by First Nation hunters, they say.
As evidence, look no further than the gut piles left on the ground by hunters, says Corey Edzerza, 38, who rides an ATV for the lands team.
No native would leave the guts to waste, he says.
“There’s 1,200 pounds of steak, and the natives go straight for the bum guts,” says Edzerza with a laugh.
It’s also hard to keep secrets in a town of about 300, such as Carcross, says Johns.
When someone gets a moose, everyone knows about it, he says.
Still, Edzerza concedes that “a small minority” of native hunters are “among the worst offenders.”
They argue they have a right to hunt.
And they’re right.
But those rights also need to be protected for “those who aren’t here yet — the generations to come,” he says.
Until the First Nation has the power it needs to enforce hunting rules here, the Yukon government could do more to help out, says Johns.
They could start by putting a hunting checkpoint on Annie Lake Road, the main access road to the area.
Checkpoints exist elsewhere, such as at the bottom of the Dempster Highway at Dawson City.
“If they had that here, it would sure solve most of the problems,” he says.
He’s also encouraging Carcross residents to hunt a bison instead of a moose. There is an abundance of bison, out in Champagne and Aishihik country.
And by taking one, “you could save a moose,” he says.
Johns has performed periodic patrols like this since 1991, when efforts had just started to protect the local Southern Lakes caribou herd.
That herd has since rebounded from about 300 to 1,300.
Now attention has turned to protecting moose.
Johns, for one, is convinced his presence on the hilltop will help deter further illegal hunting.
“We’re just getting started,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”
But on this Thursday, he sees no hunters.
And no moose.