Peel Watershed Conservation Background
See also: Watershed Protection Updates
Canyon on the remote Hart River, one of a constellation of intact Peel watershed tributaries
Photo by Juri Peepre
The Peel Watershed
While Sir Robert Peel never laid eyes on the river that carries his name, this grand northern watershed has seen its share of history. The stories of the Tetl’it Gwich’in, Klondike gold seekers, Northwest Mounted Police, early traders, explorers and geologists are all linked with the river known as Teetl’it gwinjik, meaning “along the head of the waters.”
Today Gwich’in riverboats ply the waters, often carrying hunting and fishing parties; as well, canoes, kayaks and rafts carry adventure seekers, nature lovers, artists, and people on spiritual or educational quests. All value the soul of the wild. The Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume, the Blackstone, Hart and Ogilive, the Trail, Caribou and Rat—these tributary streams evoke a land rich with the possibilities of discovery and surprise.
The Peel River and its six largest tributaries – the Snake, Bonnet Plume, Wind, Hart, Blackstone and Ogilvie – rise in the stunning Selwyn and Wernecke Mountains and flow through the vast Peel basin in northeastern Yukon, an area that accounts for 14 percent of the territory. Perched at the apex of Canada’s boreal forest and the northern end of the RockyMountain chain, the Peel watershed also touches on Beringia and the subarctic.
Blending all these biomes, this distinct and varied land of plateaus and mountains, rivers and wetlands, is not yet fully revealed to science. Mountain ranges frame pristine taiga forests and subarctic watersheds. Robust herds of woodland and barren ground caribou, free-ranging wolverine and grizzly bear, the vulnerable peregrine falcon, unspoiled aquatic habitat, and thousands upon thousands of boreal songbirds and migratory waterfowl occupy an ancient landscape that is the essence of wildness.
An Iconic Canadian River Wilderness in Peril
What does the future hold for the Peel watershed? Successive Yukon government pronouncements suggest a foregone conclusion: industrialization of the entire watershed. Yet, the comprehensive land use plan, with the broad support of communities and First Nations, recommended 80% protection for the watershed, and public support for conservation remains strong. This watershed, home to one of the great boreal mountain landscapes of our nation, presents a compelling case for protecting the entire ecosystem.
Whether we argue the case on conservation science, intrinsic value, economics, traditional ways of life or the human spirit, the evidence is clear: keeping the Peel watershed alive as an untrammelled wilderness—a vital sanctuary in these times of global change—presents an urgent task and opportunity for our generation.
The work to protect the Peel watershed began with First Nations land claim negotiations in the 1980s, and is continuing today following the completion of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s recommended land use plan and subsequent court challenges in support of the plan. Local community people, First Nations, a broad cross-section of the Yukon public, conservation organizations such as CPAWS and the Yukon Conservation Society, and more recently, thousands of Canadians from across the land have supported the protection effort – reflected by the Commission calling for 80% of the watershed to be protected.
During this long journey, governments made sure that they avoided the most pressing questions, such as: How does our society value wilderness and wildness? What vision for this place will best serve the people and communities for generations to come? What kind of human uses might we foster, while preserving what is most important about these lands and waters?
After a 2007 community gathering, people from Mayo and FortMcPherson made this declaration:
We are the stewards of this land of plenty and pristine beauty.
To be stewards is to have a long-term vision for the future of the Watershed.
We reaffirm … that the Peel River Watershed be protected in perpetuity from all damage to harvesting, wildlife, and fish habitat, and the quantity and quality of water flow.
Summer cloudburst in the Wernecke Mountains, in the northern reaches of the Yellowstone to Yukon region
Photo by Juri Peepre
Why Protect the Peel Watershed?
The Peel watershed and the Three Rivers wilderness are globally important, and vital to northern conservation. Some of the key values to protect include:
- intact mountain watersheds and wilderness on a vast scale, with fresh clean waters–rare in the world;
- pristine mountain boreal ecosystem, a benchmark of Canadian significance, with a full complement of predator and prey species;
- largest intact woodland caribou herd, a species vulnerable elsewhere; also includes parts of the ranges of three other woodland caribou herds, and part of the winter range of the Porcupine caribou herd;
- includes mountain, plateau and lowland biomes with a rich variety of life, enhanced by the endemic species of Beringia;
- 25 percent of Yukon’s peregrine falcons breed in the Peel watershed; the rare Swainson’s hawkalso likely nests here;
- large critical wetland areas of territorial and North American significance, used by waterfowl for staging and nesting;
- refuge for large carnivores such as grizzly bears, wolves, wolverine and other species requiring large wilderness to survive.
Wilderness is an integral part of the North; its intrinsic and spiritual values will always be important. Conservation benefits local communities and economies, and supports traditional land uses such as hunting and trapping.
What are the Threats?
Just as the Peel watershed begins to gain well-deserved recognition as a global reservoir of wilderness and northern biodiversity, plans for development are already compromising its future. Without permanent legal protection, the Peel watershed, like much of Canada’s North, is vulnerable to new development schemes for oil and natural gas, pipelines, coal and coal-bed methane. Others dream of building roads and rails to extract iron ore, copper, uranium and other metals from the remote mountains.
Our governments have been especially eager to industrialize the Peel before setting aside conservation lands, even though large-scale resource development would severely compromise the Peel watershed and the ecological health of its major tributaries. Such development also could ruin a robust wilderness and ecotourism industry, as well as limit the ability of communities to sustain local economies.
Paddlers on the upper Snake River, one of the tributaries nominated for full protection by CPAWS
Photo by Juri Peepre
A Conservation Proposal
Even though industrial development is outpacing conservation in many parts of southern Canada, the northern boreal forest is still one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet: about 70 percent remains in a natural state, 30 percent is tenured for industrial uses, and 10 percent is protected. In the Yukon the amount of boreal forest protected roughly matches the 10 percent national average, but is far short of the 50 percent protection goal recommended by scientists and conservation organizations such as the Canadian Boreal Initiative and CPAWS.
First Nations, along with the Yukon Chapter of the CanadianParks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS-Yukon) and the Yukon Conservation Society, support protection of the greater Peel watershed, including the well-known Three Rivers area.
Such a conservation strategy would:
- conserve a globally important mountain boreal ecosystem both for its inherent value and as a benchmark for more developed ecosystems elsewhere;
- protect a northern Canadian cultural landscape, and support continued traditional activities and harvesting throughout the Peel watershed;
- allow for appropriate new economic and community development compatible with maintaining a healthy ecosystem;
- ensure continued robust populations of woodland caribou, grizzly bear, wolverine, wolf, peregrine falcon and a host of other species;
- protect the pristine headwaters of the Peel, large intact tributary watersheds, aquatic ecosystems and critical wetlands of territorial importance;
- protect one of Canada’s finest arrays of wild mountain rivers, supporting existing tourism and service businesses, and attracting new investment;
- help meet the Yukon’s commitment to complete a territorial network of protected areas, and meet its obligations underinternational convention to conserve biodiversity.
The plan recommended by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission goes a long way towards these goals and is an important milestone in protecting the wilderness, wildlife and way of life in the Peel watershed. Following years of public consultation and negotiations with First Nations, the Yukon government will decide whether to accept the recommended land use plan. The Peel watershed and Three Rivers wilderness need your voice!
For more information and ways to take action, go to www.protectpeel.ca