Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Yukon Environmental History series organized around the 125th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Territory. You can read other posts on this series here.
Growing up in the Yukon, I was raised with a keen awareness of the Klondike gold rush. This event, at least according to many settler historians of the region, was deemed to be the marquis event of the Yukon’s history. After all, in addition to the many dramatic, “larger-than-life” (the current tourism slogan for the territory) stories that emerged out of gold rush, it was during this time period that the Yukon became its own territory. I was infatuated with Robert Service poetry and, at one point in my youth, could recite “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by memory (Don’t ask me to recite it now! However, being raised in a family of avid recreational hunters and fishers, I experienced the legacies of other historical processes that had transpired since the creation of the territory in 1898. Throughout the Yukon’s history, wildlife has been important economically and recreationally to both Indigenous and settler Yukoners. The creation of the territory resulted in a new bureaucracy to administer the management of wildlife. This bureaucracy would need to enforce hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations along its new border with the Northwest Territories (NWT) and its pre-existing borders that the Yukon had inherited with Alaska and British Columbia (BC).
I never took up hunting and I abandoned fishing when I was young. I still remember the pivotal moment in my abandonment of fishing. At Kathleen Lake in southwest Yukon, I had caught a fish (I do not remember the species). The fish was sitting on the rocky beach while I cast my line out to try and catch another. My dad was on the beach while my mom and sister were in a canoe on the lake. While we were all occupied with fishing and canoeing, a wily and opportunistic gull grabbed the fish and began flying across the lake! My mom and sister pursued in the canoe. Alas, we did not retrieve the fish.
Even though I was not a hunter and no longer a fisher, hunting and fishing continued to influence how I interacted with the land in the Yukon and beyond. I continued to travel with my family on fishing and hunting trips, both under the cover of family camping trips. Often these trips occurred in borderland regions between the Yukon, BC, and Alaska. Trips to Atlin, BC or Haines, Alaska often entailed familiarizing ourselves with the BC or Alaskan fishing regulations. Moreover, during our activities in these borderland regions, we needed to be aware of our location relative to the border.
During a camping trip to Morley Lake, which straddles the Yukon-BC boundary, the border took on great significance. My dad was gazing across the lake through his spotting scope when he noticed a moose in the cutline which demarcated the boundary between the Yukon and BC. As it happened, there was a BC hunter also camping at the lake who had a boat handy. My dad and the other hunter piled into the boat with their rifles in hand and raced across the lake. Meanwhile, the moose ventured out of the cutline and under the forest cover. To this day, I don’t know if the moose opted for BC or the Yukon. My dad searched for the moose on the Yukon side of the cutline while the BC hunter searched on the provincial side. Both hunters came up empty and the moose was free to enjoy the foliage on both sides of the border. While at the time I was not cognizant of the historical processes involved in creating the border and enforcing wildlife regulations along these borders, these childhood experiences prompted me to think more about the meanings of these boundaries to wildlife conservation and the hunting, trapping, and fishing activities of northern residents.
The borders between the Yukon and Alaska and the Yukon and BC are arbitrary lines, following the 141st meridian and the 60th parallel respectively. They cut across natural boundaries and natural travel corridors. Moreover, these borders were superimposed over top of the traditional territories of many Indigenous groups. Meanwhile, the Yukon-NWT border, with some exceptions (such as the Peel River watershed) follows the height of land. On the surface, this appears to be a more “natural” boundary. However, much like the Yukon-Alaska and Yukon-BC borders, the Yukon-NWT border cut across the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. In some cases, the federal government recognized Indigenous peoples’ rights to hunt, trap, and fish across these new colonial boundaries. For example, in Treaty 11 the Acho Dene Koe hunting, trapping, and fishing rights in the southeast Yukon were recognized.1 In many other cases, Indigenous peoples found their rights to hunt and trap within their traditional territories impeded by the dual effect of the imposition of colonial boundaries and the imposition of colonial wildlife conservation regulations.
The first piece of wildlife legislation that applied to the Yukon (at least in theory) – the Unorganized Territories’ Game Protection Act of 1894 – was enacted when the region was still part of the NWT. . This law set closed seasons on birds, furbearers, and various species of big game. It also exempted Indigenous peoples from various parts of the law. In January 1901, the Yukon council passed its own legislation, An Ordinance for the Preservation of Game.2
In the early twentieth century, the respective government agencies administering wildlife conservation in the North recognized that the borders were porous. They were also aware that regulations imposed on one jurisdiction could potentially affect their neighbours. For instance, during the early 1920s government officials from British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska contemplated the possibility of a co-ordinated closed season on marten to allow the animal’s population to rebound. During these discussions, government officials expressed concerns over the possibility of unscrupulous trappers harvesting furs in one of the districts with a closed season and trading it in a neighbouring jurisdiction that did not have a closed season.3 Curiously, while Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia (with some reservations) discussed the establishment of the closed season, NWT did not participate. When E.W. Nelson, the chief of the US Bureau of Biological Survey which oversaw the conservation of Alaska’s land mammals and migratory birds4, contacted O.S. Finnie, the Director of the North West Territories and Yukon Branch, Finnie voiced his skepticism over the need for a closed season in the NWT. He discussed the nature of marten ecology, stating that marten generally did not migrate between the Yukon and NWT.5 Omitted from Finnie’s assessment of the situation were the movements of trappers in the region.
Conservation measures were not always applied with the neighbouring jurisdiction in mind. In 1925, the BC government implemented a trapline registration system. North of the sixtieth parallel, the Yukon continued to use closed seasons as a means of conserving furbearing animals. The Yukon did not adopt its own trapline registration system until 1950. Trapline registration combined with colonial borders to circumscribe Indigenous trapping activities, such as that of the Kaska Dena. During the early years of trapline registration in BC, there appears to have been an agreement between the Yukon Indian Agent John Hawksley and the Stikine Indian Agent Harper Reed to permit Indigenous peoples resident the Yukon but who had trapped in BC to register traplines in the Stikine Indian Agency. However, by 1940, the inspector of Indian Agencies in BC, James Coleman, suggested that Indigenous peoples in the Yukon did not possess the legal right to trap in BC.6
In 1940, Reverend Eisha Mayfield of Lower Post, BC, wrote to George Jeckell, Comptroller of the Yukon Territory, decrying the territory’s comparative lack of effort to conserve wildlife in contrast to BC. Mayfield wrote, “We on British Columbia side are trying to prevent lawlessness and conserve our game and natural resources.” He proceeded to state that lack of cooperation on the Yukon side of the border was impeding the province’s conservation efforts, concluding, “Aparently [sic] no trapping Regulations or game conservation is considered on Yukon side.”7 Mayfield was likely concerned about cross border poaching from the ‘lawless’ Yukon. The Yukon’s use of temporal approaches to furbearer conservation (closed seasons) in opposed to spatial approaches to conservation (traplines) gave the appearance of lawlessness on the northern side of the border.
Sport hunters travelling North to bag trophies also needed to be aware of the different hunting regulations in these border regions.8 In 1926, B.C. Cole, and outfitter based out of Atlin, BC reported members of his hunting party who had unlawfully killed big game animals in BC. His party had travelled to the head of Teslin Lake, arriving on August 4th. While the lake crosses the Yukon-BC border, the head of the lake lies in BC. Cole informed the party members that the hunting season in BC did not start until September 1st. Despite this information, Cole’s party members proceeded to hunt and in the early part of August had killed a total of five sheep, three moose, and eight caribou. Cole proceeded to report the illegal hunting to the RCMP in the Yukon.9
The challenges of enforcing wildlife conservation in border regions was exacerbated by the advent of aviation in the Canadian North. For example, in 1937 a report sent to the RCMP commissioner in Ottawa entitled “Illegal Fur Shipments by Aeroplanes” made various recommendations for preventing the export of furs from the Yukon without individuals paying the Fur Export Tax.10 This report indicated concern on the part of the Yukon administration that individuals were flying into the territory, trapping furs, and then trading them outside the territory, thus depriving the government of its revenues. Sometimes concerns about individuals flying into southern Yukon to trap came from south of the sixtieth parallel. Harper Reed, for example, expressed concern that white trappers were flying north from BC communities and trapping in the southeast Yukon. These appear not to have been baseless accusations as a pilot for the United Air Transportation Company admitted in an interview to having flown individuals to Toobally Lakes and Fish Lake.11
The border continues to pose challenges to hunters, trappers, and fishers as well as the government officials placed in charge of managing wildlife. In 2022, an Alaskan hunter was fined $8,500 for killing a Dall’s sheep in the Yukon in 2017. After killing the sheep on the Yukon side of the border, the hunter packed his kill back into Alaska, claiming to have killed it in Alaska. It was after photos of the kill were posted to an online forum that wildlife officials became aware that the kill site was indeed in the Yukon Territory and an investigation followed. Meanwhile, the hunter claimed to be unaware that he had crossed the border into the Yukon.12 This incident demonstrates the continued challenges surrounding wildlife conservation in the Yukon’s borderland regions. 125 years after the formation of the Yukon Territory, the Yukon government continues to struggle to enforce wildlife legislation in these difficult to monitor borders. Hunters, trappers, and fishers – whether intentionally or accidentally – continue to transgress these boundaries.