Where all waters flow north at the most northerly point of the Yukon Territory, the North American continent meets the Beaufort Sea. This is the Yukon North Slope, a coastal plain untouched by glaciation in the west and dramatically carved by glaciers in the east. Encompassing Ivvavik National Park and bounded on the west by Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the east by the sprawling Mackenzie River Delta, and to the south by Vuntut National Park, this is a vast wilderness area with no roads or towns, only the small seasonal hunting camps of the Inuvialuit.
For countless generations, the Yukon North Slope has been part of the core hunting territory of the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic. From their communities in Aklavik and Inuvik, the Inuvialuit rely on the North Slope for their subsistence livelihood, travelling by boat and snow machine to hunt, trap and fish. It is this exceedingly rare interplay between wild landscapes, flourishing wildlife and indigenous people that makes the Yukon North Slope such a treasure. Maintaining these relationships is central to preserving the rich ecological values of Yukon North Slope.
Ecologically, the ranges of the British, Barn, and Richardson Mountains of the Yukon North Slope provide habitats for an impressive assemblage of larger mammals, including wolf, moose, Dall sheep and grizzly bear. Outside of these ranges, the eastern coastal plain and wetlands provide a variety of habitats for polar bear, muskox, ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds and the entire western Canadian Arctic population of lesser snow geese that number over several hundred thousand birds. Above all else perhaps, the Yukon North Slope is home to the Porcupine Caribou herd, encompassing the herd’s core Canadian calving grounds. Numbering more than 170,000, these caribou are an international emblematic symbol of Canada’s Western Arctic. The Porcupine Caribou are central to the Inuvialuit’s relationships to these lands and are key to their way of life and livelihood. Furthermore, the communities of Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Old Crow, Dawson City, Tsiigehtchic, Fort Yukon, Kaktovik, and Arctic Village each all rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for food and materials for clothes and shelter.
In 1984, the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic entered into a land claims agreement with the Government of Canada. The resulting Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA) provides a means for the Inuvialuit to participate in economic and social development decisions in the North, while also protecting their traditions and conserving the Arctic wildlife and their environments. The full geographic scope of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) includes much of the Western Arctic, portions of the Beaufort Sea, a large area of the Northwest Territories, and the entire Yukon North Slope.
Due to the high ecological richness and cultural importance of the Yukon North Slope, the Inuvialuit strongly advocated for the entire region to be placed within national park status throughout the land claim negotiations. When the negotiations finally concluded, the IFA established Ivvavik National Park and Herschel Island Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park – both wilderness parks and the remaining area of the eastern North Slope continue under a Withdrawal Order – a moratorium effectively prohibiting development activities.
In addition, the IFA confirmed that the management priority for the whole of the Yukon North Slope was to ensure conservation of the land, near and off shore waters, wildlife and Inuvialuit traditional use of its resources. To assist in delivering on this management priority, the IFA also established the Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope) [WMAC(NS)], a co-management body. The mandate of the WMAC (NS), which is comprised of federal, territorial and Inuvialuit representatives and an independent Chair, is to provide advice on all matters related to wildlife management on the Yukon North Slope.
Adapting to A Changing Landscape
The most recent period of glaciation ended approximately 18,000 years ago, resulting in the receding of the great ice sheets. Since that time, plants and animals that found harbour here spread out in every direction. Some of those same species that colonized the area many millennia ago are still found here, such as the arctic fox, tundra muskox, caribou and grizzly bear. Other species such as the woolly mammoth, steppe bison, camel, badger, giant beaver and wild ass succumbed to extinction at the end of the Pleistocene.
Today the pace of change is accelerating dramatically. In the face of human induced climate change, the Yukon North Slope and the wildlife and communities that adapted over many thousands of years are now facing rapid shifts in temperature and weather patterns, ground conditions and vegetation. The ever-resilient Inuvialuit, along with the more resistant wildlife species, may well be able to withstand and survive this dramatic change, if simply left to their own devices. However, there are other forces at play that compound the effects of changing environmental conditions and that threaten the long-term conservation values of the Yukon North Slope.
Challenges and Threats
For many years, the Inuvialuit have worked to conserve the Yukon North Slope through their use and management of wildlife and its habitats, as well as their commitment to scientific research. As noted above, this was in fact the very intent of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement—not to change the land, but to protect it for future generations of Inuvialuit, for others to enjoy and for its own sake.
Despite this, the area’s future is uncertain. Interests in mineral and onshore and offshore hydrocarbon exploration and development, and seaport and road construction and onshore and offshore hydrocarbon have thrown into question the status and future of the Withdrawal Order as a conservation tool for the eastern part of the Yukon North Slope. This interest has prompted questions at senior government levels in the Yukon about the status and intent of the Withdrawal Order, and the conditions under which controlled development could be accommodated.
The conservation values of the Yukon North Slope are highly vulnerable to development activity, as is the balance between North Slope ecosystems and the subsistence use of the area by the Inuvialuit. Moreover, experience from other areas of the Arctic demonstrates that if this area were impacted from industrial development, it would recover only very slowly, or perhaps not at all. The accelerating effect of climate change only further introduces uncertainties and complexities, ever more compounding the vulnerability of the North Slope.
Wildlife Conservation and Management Plan
In the face of these challenges, the WMAC (NS) has an essential role to play in the long-term conservation of the Yukon North Slope and in ensuring that the management intent of the IFA is fulfilled.
In 2003, as required by the IFA, the WMAC (NS) developed the Yukon North Slope Wildlife Conservation and Management Plan to provide direction for the conservation of wildlife, habitat and traditional Inuvialuit use. In response to substantial current and pending habitat alterations due to climate change, as well as uncertainties surrounding the management of industrial development interests, additional work is now necessary to update and revise this plan. Fundamentally missing from the existing Plan and management approach is an understanding and incorporation of knowledge about climate-induced ecological changes. Significant work is available providing insights from documented and predicted climate changes across the Arctic in the form of scientific as well as Traditional Knowledge. These important climate-drivers have not been interpreted in the context of the Yukon North Slope or included as key considerations for the management of its wildlife and landscapes.
Work is needed to assimilate the existing information on climate change, including the development of climate change adaptation models for key ecological systems and species. Analyses of key ecosystems, ecological dynamics and species under current and predicted future landscapes can provide important insights when combined into regional ecological spatial analysis. Management and conservation of the Yukon North Slope needs to be based upon a global perspective of climate drivers brought to bear on regional and ecosystem dynamics and cultural requirements of the Inuvialuit people. Such an approach will give the Inuvialuit people and their partnering federal and territorial managers the tools needed to understand key vulnerabilities and resiliencies of the Yukon North Slope and what actions are required to most successfully maintain its ecological vitality and continuously support the livelihoods of the Inuvialuit.
The WMAC (NS) is well positioned to complete this plan and to facilitate its adoption. Indeed, it has a legal responsibility to do so. Since it inception in 1983, the WMAC (NS) has worked closely with the Yukon, NWT and federal governments, other co-management management boards, the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee and the Inuvialuit Game Council. These working relationships and the complementary decision making roles of these various parties provides a strong platform for collaboration. In implementing the IFA, millions of dollars have been spent on wildlife research programs on the Yukon North Slope and throughout the region. Furthermore, the Inuvialuit have already proven they are both consistent and very effective conservation advocates for the lands, waters and wildlife in their territory, using both diplomatic and legal actions with territorial and federal governments to achieve their objectives and to protect their rights and interests. In this context, a revised Wildlife Conservation and Management Plan, informed and supported by rigorous studies and analysis, represents a timely, proactive measure and critical management instrument to ensure that the conservation requirements of the Yukon North Slope and the rights and interests of the Inuvialuit are maintained. This approach to conservation assessment and planning in an area of high conservation values, aboriginal traditional use and industrial development interests may also serve as a model, informing the efforts of other communities and regions across the circumpolar Arctic who may be confronting similar challenges.
The WMAC (NS) has sought out advanced technical expertise to assist with its efforts to define the conservation requirements for the eastern North Slope and use this information to update the Yukon North Slope Wildlife Conservation and Management Plan. After a series of initial meetings and discussion, the WMAC (NS) has entered into a partnership agreement with Round River. Together, these WMAC (NS) and Round River are seeking support to undertake the necessary technical and planning work over the next 3-5 years. It is anticipated that some federal funding will be available to support the Council’s efforts, together with in-kind technical support from territorial agencies. The scope of the planning effort will, however, require significant additional resources.
The Yukon North Slope is a rapidly responding microcosm of climate change that is occurring throughout the planet. The information gathered here will be invaluable to the international community. Adaptations by caribou and polar bear will inform wildlife management across the circumpolar North. Data on the thawing permafrost and plant adaptations will be invaluable.