National Geographic : 2014 Feb
108 national geographic • february 2014 “The Peel watershed is one of the few places left where you still have large, intact predator-prey ecosystems,” says Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon Conservation Society. “From wolves and griz- zlies and eagles on down, it’s a wildlife habitat of global importance.” The Yukon has long served as a migration waypoint for humans too. During the last glacial period, when most of Canada was buried under a mile of ice, Alaska and the Yukon were part of an arid, glacier-free pocket called Beringia, which linked Siberia and North America. Animal bones discovered in the Yukon’s Arctic and carbon dated to 25,000 years and older appear, to some archaeologists, to have been broken or cut by hu- mans—though many scholars contest this claim. It’s clear, however, that human populations were permanently established by about 13,000 years ago, when retreating glaciers opened up corridors that allowed people to migrate north and south. These nomadic hunters brought elements of their culture and technology with them. Eventu- ally Dene (sometimes referred to as Athabaskan) languages became widespread. Even now, Navajo and Apache speakers in the American Southwest share words and sentence structures with many of the Yukon’s First Nations peoples, despite cen- turies of separation. The Yukon’s early inhabitants hunted bison, elk, caribou, woolly mammoths, waterfowl, and fish, and they competed for resources with carni- vores such as wolves and Beringian lions. Due to climate warming and other factors, some of these animals died off. But others, such as the barren- ground caribou, thrived in such numbers that native peoples adapted their own movements and lifestyles to the animals’ migrations. “We’ve been depending on the caribou for at least 10,000 years,” says Norma Kassi, former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. “Our oral tradition tells us that a Gwitchin man sealed a pact of coexistence by trading a piece of his own beating heart for one from a living caribou.” The Porcupine caribou herd is named after the big westward-flowing river that many of the animals cross twice each year. Their journey Surface mining has transformed Hunker Creek into a wasteland. Massive machines do the work, but many mining laws date from the pick-and-shovel days.