Chapter 16 Fish and wildlife management in the yukon

A Grizzly bear munches dandelions at the side of the Alaska Highway. He is unconcerned and unfazed by the stopping cars, cameras getting pulled out of bags and tourists snapping a hallmark Canadian shot. He struts down the highway chewing the flower stocks, fur wet from a recent rain.

Despite the apparent solitude of this animal, he actually has a whole fleet of people, governments and councils behind his back, looking after him. While they often don't see eye-to-eye, these bodies are currently striving to work together, setting aside differences in opinions as much as possible, to ensure the survival of this iconic Canadian species.

These bears are more than just an image for a postcard. As a predominant predator, Grizzly bears have significant impacts on their surrounding landscape and are celebrated by many First Nations cultures.

The Umbrella Final Agreement, which established the overarching regulations for First Nations land claims in the Yukon, mandated collaboration between the First Nations, territorial and federal governments for several facets of governance. One of them was wildlife.

Stemming from that agreement is a collection of collaborative efforts. The Yukon government works on equal footing with the First Nations - at least on paper. While the territorial government still has the final say, it is a collaborative approach.

Through differing opinions, it is those bodies, those people, and those governments that stand behind fish and wildlife in the Yukon. While they often spend months reconciling differences in core values that pertain to wildlife, those conversations are happening.

The configuration here is unique to the Yukon; no other province or territory has a similar set up to manage fish and wildlife. It means that there are many fingers in many pies, and the configuration is confusing, even for those involved in it.

While every species has slightly different configurations, federally protected species have similar parties at play. Bison management, for example, has a similar configuration to Grizzly bears. The Champagne-Aishihik First Nation was part of the bison management plan - which is pretty widely considered a success - when it came through in the early 1990s.

As a new management plan is working its way through the pipes for Grizzly bears with all of these management boards, governments and councils, it’s time to look at how decisions were - and are - made, who the players are, what they do, and how they work together to make decisions.

“[Fish and wildlife] is the longest chapter in the Umbrella Final Agreement. That’s because it meant so much to people. It was the most important thing, really.” – Kelly Milner

In the Umbrella Final Agreement, the chapter on fish and wildlife – Chapter 16 – is the longest, more than double most of the others.

For all the varying perspectives, one consistent thread amongst the others is the importance of wildlife to Yukoners, both First Nations and non-First Nations.

“Chapter 16 has been a priority because it's been a priority of First Nations, their traditional use of fish and wildlife,” says Bob Hayes, a retired regional biologist for the territorial government, who worked for decades with wildlife management in the territory. “It's the first thing they think about.”

Inside the cultural centre for the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation, panels describe the history and values of the culture. Interactive displays allow children to play with and learn the importance of wildlife in the traditional territory.

"We are a hunting and fishing people, with close ties to the land," says the panel on traditional knowledge and learning in the Daku Cultural Centre. "In the traditional Dän way, being 'smart' means knowing the animals and the territory."

Prioritizing wildlife, while a uniting influence, is not enough to level all differences in perspective, which vary from community to community and from First Nation to First Nation.

“Wildlife management is riddled with conflict and different points of view,” says Matt Clarke, acting director of fish and wildlife for the territorial government. “That’s why we’ve taken the collaborative approach.”

Even if that’s not always as easy or simple as it may sound.

John Trotter sits in the office of the renewable resource council in Haines Junction, his camouflage fleece sweater grazing the table where well worn copies of the Umbrella Final Agreement and the final agreement for the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation are prominently stacked.

“We rely on this,” he says, laying his hand on the Umbrella Final Agreement. “This is the bible of the council.”

It’s almost literally true. From within the 41 pages of the fish and wildlife chapter was borne public advisory councils, which includes the renewable resource councils and the fish and wildlife management board.

The renewable resource councils tackle the local side of fish and wildlife management, consulting with their community members to create recommendations specific to their traditional territory.

“We can become the voice for the individual,” says Trotter. That voice then gets passed off in the form of a cohesive recommendation from the resource council.

Recommendations can be anything from suggesting an extension of hunting season, to requesting a change in the plants used on the sides of highways to decrease vehicle-animal collisions. Those recommendations can be passed to the territorial government, the First Nations government or the federal government – though that capacity is not often exercised.

For species that span across the territory, like Grizzly bears, bison and caribou, the fish and wildlife management board steps in. The resource councils impacted by the species at hand will provide their recommendations to the board, which then combines them into a cohesive set and passes them up the line.

“It’s like a pinball in a drier," says Trotter, "because it’s going all over the place.”

"Rarely is everyone happy with the outcome but the idea is to have an outcome that is best for the long-term management of the species and the sustainable use of the species." - Matt Clarke

Grizzly bears are a particularly charged topic in wildlife management. Some Yukoners want to harvest them; some insist they must be revered and left alone. But the organizations of wildlife management are currently in the process of developing a management plan, one that is more far reaching than most others that have come before it.

The management plan for bison, which was controversial at the time, dealt with only three First Nations and renewable resource councils. The Grizzly bear management plan will encompass all of the Yukon.

“We saw there was something critical that was missing in the mix,” says Graham Van Tigham, executive director of the fish and wildlife management board. “Rather than deal with [issues] on a one off basis, we decided it was time to get our nose to the grindstone and have a management plan for Grizzly bears.”

Their noses might be at the grindstone for a long time. Providing a cohesive set of recommendations for a polarising issue is a tall order.

“That's a hard management plan to develop,” says Kelly Milner, who has worked in wildlife management for decades, in the governments, board and councils. “I think it's going to be hard to make everybody happy, or anybody happy.”

While the set up seems to imply a trickle system, where recommendations are filtered from council to the board to the governments, the organizations involved in wildlife management, even special interest groups, all sit at the same table – literally – to work out a plan.

“The Grizzly bear management plan is a good example where they incorporate individual traditional territory issues and concerns into their broader plan,” says Trotter, who was one of the members at a multi-day Grizzly bear management conference in July.

Milner was also there, working with the Inuvialuit in northern Yukon. Despite the tall order, she remained optimistic in the thin thread that links all of their perspectives.

“Everybody said that bears are important to the Yukon,” she says, “that they have a right to exist regardless of human use and that we want to see them living here.”

That link in respecting the existence of these species was not lost on others either. "In some situations, fish and wildlife conversations may be a path to reconciliation because it is often high on the list of First Nations,” says Clarke. “So if there are common threads in fish and wildlife management then I think that can help develop those relationships and move that conversation in a positive way.”

“When you can sit down with two governments and a bunch of people from a community with diverse backgrounds and come to some consensus about what's happening, that's reconciling the differences that were there.” - John Trotter

Despite all the challenges that occur when trying to find cohesion in a sea of opinions, the original intent behind the Umbrella Final Agreement is still being honoured. While the territorial government does still hold the final say in decisions, it is still a collaborative approach.

"You listen, and you know what, it changes everything," says Van Tigham. "It's a First Nation government coming out and they've got their elders and they're explaining it to us, and we are all ears. That's all they have to do."

"What we do here, that's a form of reconciliation," says Trotter, touching the table where local First Nations and non-First Nations get together to come to whatever consensus they can to manage wildlife.

Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation did also note the importance of consensus, but cautioned against putting a time stamp on it. "An important thing to recognize is that meaningful consultation takes time, but, in keeping with our Yukon First Nation Final and Self-Government agreements, is essential to making the best long-term decision."

"It's so complicated. It seems like it should be easy but people are just messy," says Milner. "But you've got to try because it's better than not trying."

The hope - at least one most could agree to - is that the Grizzly, munching flowers and minding his own business, will be able to keep doing so as those organizations behind him negotiate, and attempt to grapple with all the varying perspectives that are involved in just that.

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