By Richard Cherepak and Todd Onsorge
Yukon Territory is vast, rugged and sparsely populated. Slightly larger than California, Yukon covers an area of 482,443 square kilometers, yet only has 4,850 kilometers of maintained roads (for comparison, Yukon’s western neighbor, Alaska, has more than 25,000 kilometers of public roads). Resident hunters can live the backcountry hunter’s dream – hiking ridges and valleys in isolated and wild terrain in pursuit of caribou, bison, thinhorn sheep, ptarmigan and more, often many kilometers from the nearest road or person.
But much of this opportunity is only accessible through fly-in or paddle trips. Day or weekend hunting and trapping opportunities are largely tied to the limited road and trail network that just scratches the surface of the Yukon wilderness. The vast majority of small game hunting (i.e. grouse and hares) in Yukon occurs within a few hundred meters of a road or trail, and to some extent big game hunting as well, most notably for moose and bear.
Long-term Yukon residents have noticed these hunting opportunities slowly eroding. Although the population of Yukon is small by most standards – just over 35,000 people call the territory home – the population has been growing steadily and has doubled since 1970. People moving to the Yukon frequently purchase public lands and build houses near the major center of Whitehorse but outside of the city limits, creating substantial rural sprawl. Because regulations prohibit hunting within a kilometer of a residence without permission and private land can be posted “No Hunting or Trapping,” each of these rural residential properties has the potential to take public land and public hunting opportunities away from other Yukoners.
Prior to approving land applications, the Yukon government must consider the impacts of rural development on ecological and social values. Because many of these land applications are small in scope, it is easy to dismiss the impact of one individual property. But what if we consider the impact of all rural development over the past decades? Few assessments by the Yukon government have looked into the cumulative impacts of rural expansion. In large part, this is because the onus of bringing social and economic impacts of development to the government’s attention resides with Yukoners, and no individual or group has yet taken up the torch to investigate how rural expansion is impacting hunting and trapping opportunities.
The newly formed Yukon chapter of BHA has taken on this challenge and embarked on a project to map and quantify the amount of public land lost through rural expansion over the past 20 years. Chapter leaders have used their history of hunting in the territory to identify areas subject to the most pressure. Using spatial data made available from the Yukon government, BHA will identify each rural residence and link it temporally to when the land was developed. We will then be able to map the areas of interest over different time periods to show the extent of rural expansion and the amount of hunting opportunity lost when the rural expansion map is overlaid with a 1-km buffer around each residence.
Creating these maps will provide Yukon BHA with the tools needed to speak on behalf of Yukon hunters and trappers about lost opportunities as a result of the continual expansion of rural land developments and to advocate for appropriate land management strategies that will retain the tradition of Yukoners connecting with the land through hunting and trapping.
Richard Cherepak, Yukon BHA Treasurer, is an ecologist by education, a park operations and environmental assessment guy by profession and a hunter/angler with family and friends by preference. Rich is always looking for the elusive, undiscovered spots where a bit of extra effort just might pay off.
Todd Onsorge is the Yukon BHA chair and a critical care flight paramedic by trade. Todd has spent the last decade flying over the mountain top of the Yukon ranges – most of that time trying to figure out where Richard finds all of the Dall sheep.