It was our third day in Whitehorse and we woke up to significant snow falling. It had been snowing for a few hours and the city of Whitehorse was covered. We had booked a visit to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve and I wondered whether the elements were not only going to stop us visiting this preserve, if it kept up, we would see no dancing lights in the sky tonight. Our ever cheerful Japanese guide collected us at 1pm and it was still snowing lightly but he didn’t seem to think it was going to be a barrier.
The photo below was the first one I took on arrival and it illustrates a number of issues. The Preserve keeps the antlers of its beasts after they fall off and tourists love to pose with them. Note that there is snow on the antlers and on the tourist. In the background you will notice a couple of elk who seemed quite happy to rest in the snow without any apparent discomfort. The camera Itself doesn’t like taking pictures when it is snowing because it doesn’t know whether the operator wants imags of falling snow-flakes or the animals in the background. What sort of an afternoon had I got myself into!?! Luckily it stopped snowing by the time we moved on from the elks and I began to realise what a privilege it was to visit the wildlife of the Yukon.
There are apparently two major herds of elk in the Yukon, the Takhini herd and the Braeburn herd. The large field where we started our tour had only female elk in it, the hinds, who have a life expectancy of around 20 years. We were heading into Springtime in the Yukon and this meant it was the beginning of mating season; presumably this was why the stags were kept elsewhere. One of the curiosities of these elk is they have an eye tooth that was very attractive as jewellery to both European and native hunters in the 1800s. I am not sure if this story is the source of the old saying, “I would give my eye tooth for …”
The Bison were the next beasts we came upon. They were ‘Wood Bison’, not the Plains Bison that we are familiar with from Cowboy movies. These Bison inhabit the forests, they don’t roam the plains and grasslands.
The Wildlife Preserve posters on each species were very well prepared. Here’s an interesting example from the sign next to the bison enclosure.
“BACK FROM THE BRINK
Before Europeans arrived, there were 168000 wood bison in the boreal forest of Canada. By the twentieth century there were only about 250 animals. These few remaining animals were protected from hunters. In 1959, biologists found a small herd of pure wood bison near the Nyarling River in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories. Animals from this herd were captured and released in the McKenzie Bison Sanctuary in the Northwest Territories and in Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton, Alberta…Between 1986 and 1992, 142 wood bison from Elk Island were brought to the Yukon and released near Carmacks, about 150km north of Whitehorse.
Although Bison had been extinct in the Yukon for at least 200 years, their numbers grew quickly. There are now approximately 1100 bison in the territory.”
Our first reaction to the Mule Deer was that they looked a bit like rabbits. They didn’t seem to be concerned by the presence of humans, just giving us the soulful doe-eyed look of somebody who has no interest in our presence. They are not native to the Yukon but they are now found throughout the southern half of the state between Whitehorse and Dawson City. They live in herds and dine on leaves, bark and grass. They feed on the edge of the forests in the early morning and evening, the rest of the day is spent sleeping and ‘ruminating’ for the rest of the day. This is what they were doing when we arrived; staring at us and re-chewing the contents of their stomach!
There were only four female moose in the paddock that we viewed. They were female and unlike the Mule Deer, preferred to turn their rump towards us without engaging in any eye to eye contact. There are estimated to be 70000 moose in the Yukon but they are mainly encountered in the wilderness. Mating season is late Summer/Autumn and this is when the males carry their huge rack of antlers. They are solitary animals (they clearly didn’t like our company) but they come together for the mating season.
When we arrived at the Muskoxen enclosure, it had started to snow again and unlike the other animals, the muskoxen decided to head towards their shelter. I am not sure whether they were tired of humans and their cameras but the distant shot on the above left was the best I could do. The image on the right is not real muskoxen; it is a stuffed toys that the guy in the Preserve shop convinced Gayle she needed as a souvenir. I am not sure how anatomically correct they are!
Despite the silly picture, the Muskox is an important figure in the animal kingdom. For example, the muskox is one the oldest surviving herbivores on the planet. They are believed to have migrated to North America at some time during the Pleistocene era (Between 200000 and 90000) years ago. There is archaeological evidence of their existence in the Yukon since the last ice-age. For such a great survivor in harsh conditions, they couldn’t survive the arrival of European Hunters on the road ‘North to Alaska’; they disappeared from the landscape in the mid 19th century, well before the gold rushes. They were reintroduced in the 1950s and today there are a few hundred animals in small groups across the Yukon.
The information board about the Muskoxen was its usual informative self.
“Muskoxen live in herds that average 15, but can number up to a hundred cows, calves, yearlings and young bulls. Generally, mature bulls wander on their own or in small groups, joining the herd to breed. Muskoxen exhibit a strong social order and group instinct, especially when threatened. When attacked, adult muskoxen form a defensive circle or line around the young. Individual adults will charge out at the intruder with their sharp horns, scaring off or even killing attacking predators.”
Unfortunately, defensive circles, size, strength and courage don’t win all the fights. When Muskoxen were threatened by European hunters and formed defensive circles to protect the women and children, this only made it more convenient for the huinters who then merely shot and skinned the muskoxen on the spot for their soft underlying coat.
Note the picture above of what a real Muskox looks like!
The Thinhorn sheep were in the area opposite where the Muskoxen were held and even though it was snowing lightly, they only went under the shelter to eat, not to avoid us. If you note the sheep eating below, you will notice that his horns are not thin, thus throwing up the question…how did they get their name given their horns look pretty fat? They actually have a more boring name, Dall Sheep, but it doesn’t have the same ring about it as the ‘thinhorn’ sheep. Our guide suggested that they had the name around the wrong way; he thought they should be called ‘Horned Thinsheep’.
Despite the issue with the name, the sheep are very interesting. First of all, they are a species of wild sheep that are native to Canada and Alaska; Yukon has over 22000 thinhorn sheep living on mountain tops from the southern border to the Arctic Coast. They live in a range that combines alpine ridges, meadows and steep slopes which gives them more than an even chance to escape predators. The thinhorn sheep’s choice of home range has another advantage; they have been known to butt grey wolves of cliffs.
There is a division in the thinhorn sheep world, somewhat similar to the old single-sex school system. Male thinhorns live in groups that seldom mixes with the ladies, except when its mating season. The old accusation, “You are only interested in me for one thing!” is in fact true in regard to the male thinhorns.
From the thinhorn sheep we moved on to their neighbours the Mountain goats. They are native to the sub-arctic regions of North America but like so many other mammals of this area, they came across the Bering Strait land bridge from Mongolia, eons ago. Some of their relatives hale from the mountains of Tibet. There are about 1500 mountain goats in the wild in Yukon. They are more likely to be found around steep rocky cliffs so they can escape predators like the thinhorn sheep. The mountain goats tend to be solitary types except during the mating season when their mating rituals sound like the stuff of fast paced romance novels.
The mountain goats are not only preyed upon by wolves and eagles, they were also targeted by the first nation people of the Yukon. The fleece of the mountain goats were prized for clothes making. Today mountain goats are highly prized by Yukon hunters and is the rarest large mammal that is still hunted; severe hunting restrictions are in place.
ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes Lagopus)
Not far from the mountain goat’s domain, there are two areas with single inhabitants. One is for a lonely Arctic Fox and the other is for a similarly lonely Lynx.
Like all the wildlife in this Preserve, the Arctic Fox is clearly a very interesting animal. The following information has been taken from The Yukon Department of the Environment material.
“Few animals make their home in the harsh environment of the Arctic. An exception is the Arctic Fox, an adaptable circumpolar specialist. The size of a large house cat, the Arctic Fox is one of the smallest mammals to remain active above the snow surface during the long northern winter.
DISTRIBUTION: In summer the Arctic Fox inhabits a narrow strip of land along Yukon’s Arctic coast and nearby Herschel Island. During winter its range expands considerably as it moves out onto the offshore ice. Arctic Foxes have been sighted hundreds of kilometres from the nearest land. The size of Yukon’s Arctic Fox population is difficult to estimate but it is not very large. A 1986 survey concluded that 14 to 20 foxes live on Herschel Island. There are probably no more than 50 foxes in all on Yukon’s North Slope.
The Lynx is a meat-eater who favours old growth forests and is almost entirely dependant on the snowshoe hare population; the Lynx’s diet is 75% hare. These two animals live in a fine balance. If there are not enough snowshoe hares around, the Lynx population declines. If times are good for the hare, the Lynx population also rises. Our guide pointed out an empty meshed area on the way out and explained that it had been built to hold Snowshoe hares for the Lynx. Unfortunately a couple of local wild fox dug their way in and ate the whole cage full of snowshoe hares.Snowshoe hares must feel ‘born to be eaten’!
While there weren’t many caribou in this, the last enclosure we visited at the Yukon Wildlife preserve, there are a reasonable number of Caribou in the Yukon and its neighbouring territories and Alaska. There is an estimated 41000 figure for caribou in the Yukon at present. However, the story is the same for all the species of wildlife in the Yukon. The large numbers in previous centuries have been reduced significantly by the development in Yukon and the large amounts of hunting that have occurred. Even wolves are now having to be culled in order to reduce their depredation on the herds. It is estimated that at the end of the 19th century there were still half a million caribou in the Yukon…this figure is far smaller today.
There are different ‘herds’ of caribou throughout the Yukon and Alaska involving a number of species such as the Woodland Caribou and the Barren Ground caribou. The most famous herd is the Porcupine Herd which every year starts again on the longest land mammal migration in the world, covering over four thousand kilometres of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska. First Nation people have hunted caribou for thousands of years and have sited their communities along the route of the herd’s journey. Keeping this herd functioning has taken a lot of effort over the years and tribal groups have maintained a moratorium for the last twenty years on culling the caribou to ensure its future.
(Image courtesy of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society).
There are large areas of National park in Alaska (caribou know no borders) where oil and gas exploration has been banned for many years. The current president of the USA, Donald Trump, has changed the law to enable oil and gas companies access to these areas. Conservationists have argued that such work will have a huge impact on the Caribou Herd. Maintaining the north’s wildlife seems to be a complex challenge for humanity, balancing the need for development and the needs of the amazing wildlife that have survived for 1000’s of years across the top of North America. The debate over wildlife and energy supplies for the modern world is why this park was a wonderful place to visit… the world’s decision makers should come for a visit.
As an added attraction, they could finish their day by visiting the nearby Takhini Hot Springs; discussing big issues in hot pools clears the mind.