Porcupine caribou return to the Dempster, after 5 years staying north

"If you get north on the Yukon/N.W.T. border... literally you can see tens of thousands of animals just at a glance. And as they're moving through, it's a whole region just on the move," says Stan McNevin in Eagle Plains, Yukon.

'You can see 10s of 1000s of animals just at a glance,' says Stan McNevin in Eagle Plains

Caribou from the porcupine herd are starting to trickle down the Dempster Highway once again, after five years of staying north. The big herds are still around the Yukon/N.W.T. border, where one man describes 'a sea of caribou.' (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

For the first time in five years, the bulk of the ​​​​porcupine caribou herd is migrating near the Dempster Highway.

"It's a sea of animals," says Stan McNevin, who has operated the Eagle Plains Hotel for more than 30 years. He says hunters are flocking to the area, and further north, to access the big herds.

Stan McNevin, who's operated the Eagle Plains Hotel for over 30 years, He says hunters are flocking to area, and further north, to access the big herds. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)
"If you get north on the Yukon/N.W.T. border, the true tundra area, with relatively gentle mild hills, literally you can see tens of thousands of animals just at a glance. And as they're moving through, it's a whole region just on the move. It's amazing."

The porcupine caribou herd typically spends the spring on calving grounds near the Beaufort Sea, with large portions of the animals migrating south to winter on the flat ground along the Blackstone River, near Yukon's Tombstone Territorial Park.

For the past five years, the caribou had been staying north, near Arctic Village in Alaska. This year, the animals are starting to trickle south down the Dempster Highway, though the bulk remain further north, near the Yukon/N.W.T. border.

Caribou are visible along the Dempster Highway for the first time in five years. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

Peter Nagano was born in raised in Dawson City. A Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in member with subsistence hunting rights, he says sometimes he goes to Blackstone just to watch.

"Nowhere else in the world can you really see the caribou coming down, passing through or spending the winter, studying them, how they work."

He says it's something everyone should experience: "Take your time and just look at them."

Population on the rise

The porcupine caribou are one of the few Northern herds whose numbers have risen in recent years.

Conservation officer Shaun Hughes speculates caribou may have avoided the Dempster Highway, and hunters, over the past five years. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)
In 2010, scientists counted the herd and estimated 169,000 animals. The next accurate count, in 2013, found an estimated 197,000 animals.

Shaun Hughes, a district conservation officer out of Dawson City, says "it's hard to know" why the numbers went up, but he has one idea.

"They get hunted pretty heavily on the Dempster Highway," Hughes says. "Over the last four to five years, avoiding the highway is maybe a strategy for them."

Nagano says he hears people say it could be climate change, or summer fires, causing the migration to change.

Robert Alexie Sr., a Tetlit Gwich'in elder from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., says he doesn't know why the herd's migration has changed in recent years, but he does know that the animals are greatly missed.

"When there's no caribou it's no good," Alexie says. "No good for anyone."

Fort McPherson, on the banks of the Peel River near the Richardson Mountains, is one of the few hamlets on the highway, and one of several communities that rely on the herd for food and fur.

While no one can quite explain the changes, Alexie says that if the older timers like his dad were around today, they'd be able to say what's going on.

The animals are skittish, but curious. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said scientists in 2010 estimated the porcupine caribou herd to be 123,000. In fact, their estimate that year was 169,000 animals.
    Nov 16, 2015 6:27 PM CT

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.