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Once upon a time, the Fortymile caribou herd commanded the landscape. During its migration, steamboats travelling up the Yukon River had to navigate to shore or else risk clogging their paddlewheels with the animals’ glistening brown bodies. It would take days for the river to clear. 

In the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation’s interpretive manual, Northern Tutchone elder Tom McGinty recalls how the ground would shake as the caribou drew closer. He and his father had once climbed a tree and watched the sea of animals flood past. 

In the early 1900s, the Fortymile herd’s range stretched from Fairbanks, Alaska, south to Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse—more than 220,000 square kilometres. Estimates of the number of caribou back then vary from 260,000 to 568,000 animals. 

Today, 120 years later, the herd looks much different. At 84,000, it’s a fraction of its former size, with a much smaller range. But the statistics don’t tell the full story: of the herd’s precipitous decline to a mere 6,000 caribou, and of a concerted, years-long effort by Alaska, Yukon, and Indigenous governments to protect the animal and restore its grandeur. So far, as the herd continues to grow, that mission has been a success. 

Other northern animals have a similar story, punctuated by drastic population lows and ensuing efforts to bolster them. Caribou, wood bison, peregrine falcons, whooping cranes, and bowhead whales represent the spectrum of wildlife conservation in the North—from legislation changes, habitat-management decisions, and hunting moratoriums, to more drastic interventions like reintroduction, egg collection, and captive breeding. 

Slowly, these five species have crawled back from the brink to populate northern landscapes once again. Their recovery shows us what we, as northern residents, value. They embody what we consider to be northern values—tough, resilient, and storied. Sharing the landscape with them is part of our own identity. Likewise, the recovery of these five species is a window into our own actions, as meddlers or saviours, depending on your perspective. 

In 1978, the newly created Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) released its first-ever list of at-risk species. The independent group of conservation experts classified the whooping crane, wood bison, and peregrine falcon, among others, as endangered. Bowhead whales were added to the list two years later. Not that it meant much.

“Before there was a Species at Risk Act, it meant that there really was no automatic legal procedure that followed the designation of status by the committee,” says John Reynolds, COSEWIC chair and professor of aquatic ecology and conservation at Simon Fraser University. “So nothing had to happen.” 

It would take another 25 years to change that, with the passing of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2002. Now, when COSEWIC members make a classification, Canada’s environment minister reviews the decision and chooses whether to add the species to the act. If a species is listed as extirpated, endangered, or threatened, the government must produce a recovery strategy. COSEWIC remains independent, making its decisions based on scientific reports and Indigenous traditional knowledge. 

But back in the ’70s, the conservation process was much more ad hoc. As COSEWIC was starting up, Dave Mossop was early in his career as a biologist with the Yukon government, studying peregrine falcons. The birds had been decimated across North America by DDT, a pesticide that accumulated in their bodies and was passed on to their eggs, killing the young before hatching. At one point, researchers knew of just one pair along the Yukon River of the bird’s anatum subspecies. The tundrius subspecies was “locally extinct” in northern Yukon by 1980, according to Mossop.

“The thing about managing and trying to recover endangered species always involves crisis management,” he says. “So we didn’t know what we were doing—nobody knew what they were doing. We just knew we had to do something really crazy.”

Something “really crazy” meant sending the last few birds born on the Yukon River in the early ’70s to a federal breeding facility in Alberta. Once their eggs hatched, the baby falcons were deposited into the nest of the two remaining peregrines on the river. 

“I was convinced this peregrine pair had never actually seen a young peregrine before,” Mossop says with a laugh. “These are birds that eat birds, right? And these baby peregrines were being raised, of course, at huge expense and when you put one of these things in their nest, you didn’t know what was going to happen.” 

Instead of devouring the little balls of fluff, the “parents” figured out they had to feed them. This fostering process continued until 1992. To bolster the tundrius birds, captive breeding took place at what’s now the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Over time, and with the banning of DDT, the population rebounded. 

“It became the flagship species of the modern conservation movement, mostly because it’s a charismatic bird,” Mossop says. He’s retired from government now, but still works out of the Yukon Research Centre. “So it was almost serendipity that that particular critter was the one that sparked us all to begin thinking more about what we’re doing to the planet.” 

PHOTO BY PETER MATHER

The peregrine's adaptability to different kinds of prey, and its position at the top of the food chain, certainly helped its survival. For other animals, recovery efforts can be complicated by their interconnectedness with different species. In the Northwest Territories, for example, restrictions on harvesting barren-ground caribou and wood bison has led to more hunting in boreal caribou areas. Competing human interests can make recovery efforts more complex, too. 

In the Yukon, public reaction to the reintroduction of wood bison has been mixed. While there were once about 168,000 across their range, the animal began to decline in the late 1800s. By the early 20th century, it had disappeared entirely from the Yukon, likely due to grasslands changing to boreal forest.

In an attempt to return bison to their Yukon range, 170 animals from Elk Island National Park, the Toronto Zoo, and a private Saskatchewan facility were released between 1988 and 1992 into the wild in southwest Yukon. They’ve thrived since. Today, the Aishihik herd numbers an estimated 1,400.

“When you have that initial big pulse then the population can start growing pretty quickly, because it’s a numbers game,” says Tom Jung, senior wildlife biologist with the Yukon government. “The other main reason [for their success] is because of bison themselves. They’re really tough, resilient animals.” 

However, the impact on local First Nations—upon whose traditional territory the bison were released—has not been wholly positive. Jung, who wasn’t involved with the reintroduction effort, says First Nations were not consulted about re-inserting such a dominant species. Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) citizens reported in a 2016 study that the bison’s presence reduced habitat for moose and caribou. By churning up meadows with their hooves, they displaced ground squirrels. They also ate muskrat “push-ups”—vegetation the rodents store as winter food. Bison trampled medicinal plants, destroyed berry bushes by defecating on them, and damaged heritage sites such as cemeteries. 

The only positive impact of the bison was related to harvest. “One elder stated that he was glad the bison were reintroduced, and saw bison as a resource that people would depend on in the future,” the authors wrote. 

“I think that's very interesting, thinking about the cumulative impacts of any decision that we make to change the environment or to try to interfere with these natural processes,” says Zoe Guile, conservation planner at the Northwest Territories chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). “We can never know the length of the chain of changes that we’re causing.” 

That’s why the organization’s philosophy is to be as hands-off as possible when it comes to wildlife management. Keep human interference to a minimum. Ideally, Guile says, if we’re forward-thinking we can protect habitat so populations don’t get to a point where we have to take drastic measures. 

This happened, serendipitously, in the north corner of Wood Buffalo National Park, where the world’s largest migratory flock of whooping cranes spends its summers. In 1954, a forestry officer was flying to a wildfire when, down below, he spotted two large white birds in one of the park’s ponds. They were whooping cranes. Until then, biologists knew that a flock wintered at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, but the site of its northern nesting grounds was a mystery. 

“The following year, Canadian and American scientists visited the park and that’s when the international partnership dedicated to preserving the species began,” says Rhona Kindopp, acting resource conservation manager at the park. 

Whooping cranes nearly went extinct. In North America, they numbered between 1,300 and 1,500 in the mid-1800s. But by the 1940s, the global wild migratory population dwindled to just 16—the Aransas- Wood Buffalo flock—with the decline believed to be a result of human disturbance and loss of wetland habitat. 

From the ’60s to the ’90s, eggs were taken from nests in the park and sent to captive-breeding facilities, including zoos. Cranes typically lay two eggs but only raise one chick, so researchers would take one egg and leave the other in the nest. The idea was to help more birds reach maturity. 

Today, the flock has roughly 506 birds and the population is self-sustaining, says Kindopp. She grew up just outside the park, in Fort Smith, NWT. Back then, the birds were so few in number that they were rarely spotted by locals. Now, though, they can be seen flying over town en route to their nesting ground. 

Photo Provided

The value of wildlife is often quantified by its usefulness to us—mainly, can we eat it? Wild animals have always been important to northern food security, especially in isolated communities where groceries are flown in from down south at high cost. (During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become even more obvious.) For Indigenous people in the North, these food sources are interwoven with culture, tradition, and community. There are historical connections that run far deeper than simply the appreciation of meat an animal can provide. Despite the fact that many wildlife declines have been driven by human activity as settlers fanned across the country, Indigenous people have continuously acted as stewards. 

After 400 years of commercial whaling decimated bowhead populations, for instance, Inuit hunted the animals very sporadically, despite bowheads being a staple food source. 

But these deep connections have not been historically understood or respected by the Canadian government. In the 1970s, as the modern conservation movement was born, commercial whaling was outlawed and hunting them without a license became illegal—including for Inuit. This despite the fact that Inuit subsistence hunting wasn’t responsible for the whales’ grave decline. 

According to the Species at Risk Public Registry on the government’s website, the population of bowhead whales worldwide in 1991 was likely fewer than 10,000—about 15 percent of the pre-whaling population. Just 250 whales populated the Baffin Island area that year. Two hundred years prior, that had been at least 11,000. 

When negotiations began for the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in the ’90s, Inuit sought the right to subsistence hunt. They were successful. The first legal hunt in the Eastern Arctic in nearly two decades occurred in 1996, in Naujaat. Today, the hunt is co-managed by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 

“I was brought up on the land as a child,” Pond Inlet resident Simon Akpaliapik told the authors of the Final Report of the Inuit Bowhead Knowledge Study in the late 1990s. “They were completely gone [at the end of commercial whaling], but now we see more of them. When we saw them as they were coming around again it was a wonderful sight to see.” 

Today, the population in the Eastern Arctic is estimated to be 6,000. But the site also cautions that “...there is uncertainty about how bowheads will respond to the rapid changes in their habitat due to climate change and increasing human activities such as shipping and oil exploration in high latitudes.” 

In the Yukon, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had a key role in the recovery of the Fortymile caribou herd. The herd sustained two steep declines over the past century. The first, in the 1930s, is thought to be the result of environmental factors, likely the herd growing too large for its habitat. As a result, the population dropped drastically from an estimated quarter of a million to just 10,000 or 20,000 animals. 

But a second decline, in the 1970s, was likely due in large part to overhunting. The herd had been on a slow rebound, up to 60,000 or 70,000 in 1965, when the population tanked to 6,000 caribou in ’73. “It almost wiped off the earth at that point,” says Mike Suitor, the Yukon government’s North Slope and migratory caribou biologist. 

Steve Taylor, then chief of the Dawson First Nation (now the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in), sounded the alarm. According to The Comeback Trail, a newsletter produced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to educate the public about the Fortymile herd, Taylor wrote to the advisory committee for the herd’s range in Alaska and said something needed to be done. Taylor wrote to the advisory committee for the herd’s range in Alaska and said something needed to be done.

That was the start of a transboundary effort to study and recover the herd. Some improvements were obvious. For one, pilots at a military base in Fairbanks stopped doing their training above the herd’s range during calving season. “They agreed, ‘Yeah, we won't fly our jets in the middle of calving because that's not good for caribou,’” says Suitor. “It seems like a small thing but it has important implications for the herd.”

Alaska also sterilized alpha wolves in an attempt to minimize predation. While the state continued to allow people to hunt the herd, the Yukon imposed a hunting moratorium in 1995. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in also opted not to exercise its subsistence hunting rights.

“We have abused both the herd and the land,” reads a quote from CAFN elder Alex Van Bibber in the 1995 Fortymile Caribou Herd Management Plan. “The land is waiting for an apology. Until then, the herd will not be productive and give itself to people.” 

The report authors added: “We, the planning team, offer the Fortymile Caribou Herd Management Plan as an apology to the caribou and the land.” 

Signs of progress were slow, but notable. In 2002, the herd crossed the Yukon River for the first time in decades. And in the fall of 2013, it expanded into some of its historic range, areas the caribou hadn’t used since the 1930s. Last winter, the YG opened hunting on the herd.

“The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had made a huge sacrifice,” Chief Roberta Joseph told the CBC in January. “For volunteering not to harvest the Fortymile caribou for over 25 years, we’ve lost our traditional engagement and relationship with the Fortymile caribou. A whole generation has not experienced that relationship and traditional knowledge.” 

Her comments came in response to the Yukon government opening the hunt on the Fortymile herd for the first time since 1995. Joseph told the CBC that she believed the government was moving too quickly. (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s fish and wildlife manager declined an interview for this story, but said the First Nation continues to support herd growth, as well as its citizens’ harvest.) 

Today, the Fortymile herd numbers 84,000. It’s a success story, Suitor says, but he’s aware there could be another decline if the herd outgrows its habitat again. 

Another factor in their well-being is, well, us. Suitor thinks it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to say the Fortymile herd is “saved” and not in need of human attention anymore. “Part of that reason is that we’re living in an environment and a society where we have cars and trucks and Ski-Doos and quads, high-powered rifles, and the capability to get pretty much anywhere in this herd’s range.” 

There’s just no escaping us. 

Photo Provided

Because of recovery efforts, 42 years after COSEWIC released its first at-risk list, some of the original species now rank differently. COSEWIC has downgraded both wood bison and bowhead whales to “special concern” (meaning their populations may become threatened or endangered). In 2016, COSEWIC determined barren-ground caribou were threatened. All of these status changes are still under consideration by the federal government. While the Fortymile herd shows signs of recovery in the Yukon, others like the Bathurst and Bluenose East herds in the NWT continue to shrink in numbers. A territorial survey in 2018 estimated there were only 8,200 Bathurst caribou left (down from 20,000 three years prior). Overall the herd has seen a 98 per cent reduction during the past 30 years. 

As for whooping cranes, despite their population increase over the last 40 years, they remain an endangered species. On the other hand, COSEWIC decided in 2017 that the two peregrine subspecies found in the Yukon were no longer at risk. “When I was a kid growing up in Toronto, as an avid birdwatcher, if you'd told me that in my lifetime, that bird would be considered no longer at risk in Canada, I would never have believed that,” says Reynolds. 

The decision was controversial, though. 

“Several of us thought it was a crazy idea to remove them completely from the list,” Mossop says. “We have this listing called ‘special concern,’ which means this is a species we have to keep our eye on. [The bird doesn’t] even have that anymore.” 

For this reason, Mossop is in favour of more oversight at the territorial level. He believes the Yukon should have a Species at Risk Act, like the Northwest Territories. In the NWT, once a species is threatened, a recovery strategy must be written within two years. If the species is endangered, one must be produced within a year. (A spokesperson for the Yukon’s Department of Environment said an act is in the works. Nunavut doesn’t have legislation either.) 

This would shine a spotlight on species that aren’t in trouble nationally but are struggling in the territory, Mossop says. He gives one example: the American kestrel. It’s declined 60 per cent across North America, he says, but 90 per cent in the North. His study population used to be 50 pairs— now there’s just a handful left. 

The bird is not listed in the federal Species at Risk Act.

“I can't even get a nickel from the government to do the work I'm doing with this thing, trying to figure out what its problem is,” he says. “If you don’t have an act, it absolves the local government from any responsibility.”

There’s another benefit to monitoring northern populations specifically.

“Many species that are rare or geographically restricted in the Yukon are at the periphery of their range,” states a 2019 report by CPAWS Yukon’s Malkolm Boothroyd calling for species-at-risk legislation. “Peripheral populations can be critical to the survival of imperiled species.”

Five animals with different habitats and different stories. Their common thread is their value to us—significant enough that society has gone to great lengths, and great costs, to ensure they stay alive on the northern landscape. 

“Where the rubber really hits the road is in what happens after COSEWIC assesses the status,” says Reynolds. “The government has to decide whether to protect it under the Species at Risk Act and if they do, then they need to put the money into recovery… And this very often comes down to society deciding how much it’s worth to bring back species and therefore, as an extension, how much funding is allocated… to making it happen.” 

It’s our connections to specific animals that motivate governments to spend those funds. We feel responsible—and maybe a little guilty—for the disappearance of animals we love. Especially because, in many cases, it’s a result of our careless sprawl—industrial development, climate change, pesticide use, overhunting. By intervening, we feel we’re restoring the natural order, even when it’s done by not-so-natural means. (And even when governments have historically prioritized that intervention over respecting Indigenous ways of life.) 

Impressive predators and iconic northern species move us, but perhaps we need to expand our mental boundaries of the creatures we deem valuable, awe-inspiring, and worth saving. When we’re deciding what’s important enough to advocate for, we should factor in the role each species plays in the greater environment—the links between plants, insects, small animals, and the large, more commanding ones. 

Have you ever heard of the Eskimo curlew? It’s an Arctic shorebird that’s hardly been seen in decades. Did you know one species of bumblebee, whose range includes the Yukon and Northwest Territories, is endangered? Are they “worth” saving? Their presence in human lives is easily missable. It doesn’t mean they won’t be missed. 

Think of the American kestrel. It might not be garnering the national attention the peregrine did, but Mossop insists it’s a “lovely little falcon.”