The Kaska are scattered across the Kaska Traditional Territory, three in British Columbia (Kwadacha First Nation, Dease River First Nation (Good Hope Lake) and Daylu First Nation (Lower Post) and two in the Yukon (Liard First Nation (Watson Lake), and Ross River Dena Council). The Kaska Dena occupy a Traditional Territory that is 24 million hectares straddling the borders of the Yukon, British Columbia and Northwest Territories. This represents 20% of the Yukon, 5% of Northwest Territory and 10% of British Columbia – together about the size of Switzerland.
Ross River Dena Council
Ross River Dena Council is a First Nation in the eastern Yukon Territory in Canada. Its main centre is in Ross River, Yukon at the junction of the Campbell Highway and the Canol Road, near the confluence of the Pelly River and the Ross River. The language originally spoken by the people of this First Nation is mainly Kaska, although a number of the First Nation’s citizens are Slavey speakers. The First Nation, which has 483 registered members, is a member of the Kaska Nation.
The Ross River Dena Council has successfully conducted a caribou study which was completed in 2010; this study was funded by Contribution Agreement through Health Canada. There are seven caribou herds in the Ross River area alone; Tay River herd, Red Stone herd, Magundy herd, Pelly Mountain herd, Finlayson herd, Tsa Zsol herd, and Nahanni herd.
The caribou study gathered information from Ross River Dena traditional knowledge holders and scientists and produced a 40-minute DVD video. The following summary is the results of the study:
Traditional Knowledge was a central part in the study. Ross River Elders were encouraged to have their say and share their views as to their observations gathered in the study. It was learned that there were vast numbers of caribou in the Ross River area and times that there were little – the conclusion was that there was a cycle of abundance and scarcity. There was also a management system when the number appears to decline by hunting other species or elsewhere where the numbers are better. Traditional land stewardship is guided by traditional laws that were handed down through the many generations of Kaska ancestry. Predator control was also observed when populations of wolves increased.
Science was also an important component in the study. Harvested caribou were tested for contaminates as was done previously in the 90’s. Not only were the kidneys tested but also muscle tissue and body weight information was gathered. The science was to be compared with other studies throughout the Arctic circumpolar region of the world.
The changes we are now experiencing have never been observed prior to present day events, and it is having a broad effect not only on caribou. Much earlier spring thaw-freeze has taken its toll on caribou calves, and created difficulties in caribou getting to their food through the snow crust that forms over them. We also noticed that the summer months are a lot warmer which makes it difficult for the caribou as they go higher into the mountains to seek out snow patches and to get away from many insects on windy ridges.
Wildfires are also a huge concern as they destroy core winter habitats and the lichen the caribou depend on for food. It also causes travel disruptions if the fires go through travel corridors.
Increased interest in resource development such as mining is beginning to impact the caribou as more access roads and other mining related activities are happening in previously isolated regions.
Over Harvesting is also highlighted as more hunters are beginning to come as other caribou populations are dwindling elsewhere. As the population increases due to more people settling in the Yukon we see this problem will only increase as a result. The Elders have great concern for the fall hunt as the larger bulls (breeding stock) are harvested and the hunting season carries late into the rut season when the meat is tainted and not appetizing which may result in meat wastage.
Contaminants are also being identified as a concern as scientist conducted studies in the 90’s and indentified cadmium levels, which have increased in caribou in the Tay herd. A 2011 follow-up study has shown the levels have remained as previous results. Many of the Ross River Elders believe this may be the result of the Faro Mine project, which is located 60 km downstream from Ross River. The local concern takes on more emphasis as more mineral interests are being discovered in the region.
Management Planning is most favourable to Ross River Elders where traditional knowledge and science can be equally applied to establish a management plan. The Ross River Dena Council entered into a three year agreement with the Yukon Government to manage resource development in the Ross River area, which is currently in its second year. Ross River has also negotiated a Wildlife Plan with mining companies and is a line item when engaging mine proponents.