The North American Caribou Workshop is a biennial event that brings together a broad range of people involved in caribou herd management, conservation, and research. In 2014, the event drew more than 350 workshop participants to the traditional territory of the Ta’an Kwäch’än and Kwanlin Dün First Nations in Whitehorse, Yukon.
Since the first meeting in 1983, caribou management has shifted in relation to new socio-ecological contexts. With such changes in mind, the workshop organizers
issued a call for papers reflecting on the past 30 years of caribou management; the conference theme baldly asked, “Caribou Conservation and Management: What’s working?”[i] When I saw the CFP, I realized this was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss. Not only would I be able to connect with the diverse community of caribou researchers, I’d also get a chance to spend some time looking for caribou in the archival collections housed at the Yukon Archives.
My dissertation, which I’m currently working on, explores caribou-human interaction in the western Arctic since the beginning of the twentieth century. The central question addressed in the CFP was, in my mind, fundamentally historical. Therefore, I felt that my research was well positioned to contribute to the conversation. I submitted an abstract and was asked to deliver a five-minute “speed science” talk on the third day of the workshop. That’s right! Five minutes to discuss the emergence of caribou science in the transboundary western Arctic.
With a five-minute time limit, I had to rethink the content and structure of my presentation. Instead of addressing questions around the history of caribou science, I spoke (not quickly enough) about the value of archival methods and the potential for environmental history to contribute to ongoing debates about caribou conservation. My focus on historical methods led to a number of interesting conversations with government biologists, ecologists, and members of caribou co-management boards who recognized the value of a historical perspective in caribou management.
“History” was not absent from the workshop proceedings; the focus on caribou management over a 30-year period led to much historical reflection. On the first day of technical sessions, Chief Danny Cresswell, from the Carcross/Tagish First Nations, spoke about the successful Southern Lakes Recovery Program. Established in 1992, the recovery program led to the development of a co-management strategy that brought together six First Nations and the governments of the Yukon and BC. Cresswell’s historical narrative documented the incredible challenges that faced everyone involved in protecting the Southern Lakes caribou. It was a fascinating talk that challenged my thinking on co-management and the interaction between First Nations, scientists, bureaucrats, and hunters. More often, though, history entered the conversation as inert facts: several caribou scientists and government biologists employed history by noting important events and their dates. While this use of history lacked the context that is so important to historical discourse, it did demonstrate a shared appreciation for the past. It also strengthened my conviction about the important contribution environmental history could make to the field of caribou management.
Ultimately, the workshop was a great learning experience. As an environmental historian, I often think about ways of engaging researchers outside of my field. Although my brief discussion of caribou in the archives won’t lead to a paradigm shift in the field of caribou management, the conversations I had over the four days were extremely productive. Also, by actively participating in the workshop I gained invaluable insight into the state of contemporary caribou management. I learned things about caribou management that are impossible to find through standard historical methods.
I travelled to Whitehorse a few weeks before the workshop and spent time working in the Yukon Archives and exploring the city and its surroundings. The remainder of this post is a photoblog of the time I spent in Whitehorse.
During the first weekend of May, I joined the Whitehorse hiking club for a walk along the Yukon River near Marsh Lake. Near the trailhead we spotted a pair of nesting eagles. While one of the eagles incubated the eggs, the other circled above us, hunting for fish from the river.
I had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time chatting with David Neufeld about caribou and environmental history.[ii] David arranged an incredible river trip for Tina Loo and I while we were in town for the workshop.
David drew on his vast knowledge of the Yukon River to introduce us to the environmental history of the region.
And with the water levels quite low, he had to use that knowledge to ensure the boat didn’t get stuck on one of the river’s many sandbars.
This image shows the almost-100 year old remains of a structure that engineers built on the Yukon River to divert silt in order to keep the channel open for the large sternwheelers that travelled to and from Whitehorse. The diversion didn’t last long before river ice plowed through.
While traveling upstream, the boat spooked a juvenile bald eagle that had been sitting in a tree near the bank of the river.
David reminded us of the ways in which human interaction with the natural world could be seen in the beautiful and vast landscapes in front of our cameras.
The caribou workshop began with several fascinating workshops. I participated in a wildlife and nature photography clinic, which was taught by Whitehorse photographer, Robert Postma.[iii] After the winter, most people in Whitehorse were pretty excited about the return of long days and warm weather. Not surprisingly, we spent the afternoon taking photographs of crocuses bathing in the sun.
With the exception of archival materials that document interaction between human-caribou interaction, I didn’t encounter any caribou on this trip. But in the fall I’ll travel to the community of Old Crow to witness Porcupine Caribou on their annual migration from the calving grounds to their wintering grounds. After such an incredible trip, I’m excited about getting back to the Yukon and continuing to work on the environmental history of caribou.
Bio: Jonathan is a PhD student in geography at the University of British Columbia. In addition to his work on caribou conservation and science, he also has an interest in photography – its history and potential as a method in environmental history. He’s keen to speak to other environmental historians using photography in the field and in their work.
[i] North American Caribou Workshop Website: www.2014nacw.ca.
[ii] Read about David’s work on the Yukon River at: http://niche-canada.org/2013/08/06/drifting-towards-an-environmental-history-of-the-yukon-river-valley/
[iii] Check out Robert’s work at: www.distanthorizons.ca.
Latest posts by Jonathan Luedee (see all)
- CHESS 2019: Call for Participants - November 21, 2018
- Archival Caribou: The North American Caribou Workshop - June 9, 2014
- Representing Northern Environmental Histories - December 2, 2013