Gold-mining in the Yukon River watershed took place well before the Klondike discovery. It started in the Forty-Mile River in 1886 with 600 miners participating, and Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka (1892) described 100 to 200 miners working the exposed river bars on the Teslin, Salmon and Stewart Rivers.
However these were relatively small events compared to the discovery of Gold in the Klondike region in 1896, which brought huge numbers of people to the Yukon. The Dawson City area had a population of about 500 in 1896, but it grew to possibly 40,000 by the summer of 1898.
All these people had to be fed. There was no agriculture in the Yukon to produce food; it had to be imported or procured by hunting Yukon’s game.
The government therefore allowed the sale of game meat starting in 1897. Initially explorers, prospectors and miners had obtained their meat by trading will local First Nation members, but the sheer volume of people that settled in the Klondike made that method inadequate, and in response a new profession came into being: that of the commercial meat hunter.
Initially, this new method of getting meat for the population was a “free-for–all” approach with no licence requirement nor restrictions on number of game killed and sold. However, in 1920 – when the gold rush was over and Yukon’s population had dropped to about 4,000 – licence requirements were made mandatory. Then, in 1947 commercial hunting was made illegal.
There has been much debate about the numbers of animals killed and the potential impacts on the affected population. However, with no records on harvest being kept any estimate can only be an educated guess, which also has to consider the growing number of imported, domestic animals.
A fairly reliable information source was Tappan Adney – an American journalist who spent the gold rush years in Dawson and had a close relationship with local Han First Nation members.
He claimed that in 1897-98 there were 150 moose were killed around Dawson, while the number of caribou would be in the hundreds as well, but the harvest number was greatly influenced by migration routes through the area, particularly the location of their river crossings.
No doubt the moose and caribou populations declined and hunters had to travel ever increasing distances to find them.
However, declines can also be the result of displacement through disturbances and destruction of habitat. At the time, the forests along the rivers were essentially destroyed by frequent fires. These fires were caused by campfires getting away – since they were not properly put out by the newcomers.
Habitat was also disturbed by firewood cutting for dozens of steamships that went back and forth between Dawson and Whitehorse.
These old forests often had a ground vegetation of lichens and were used by caribou as winter range.
Hunting due to the Gold Rush had a significant impact on wildlife, but it was only one historic migration of people that impacted wildlife in the territory.
At about the same time that the gold rush occurred, whaling activity in the Beaufort Sea took place. It had come late to the Yukon – from 1890 to 1907 – after more accessible whale populations in the North Pacific had been depleted.
Whaling is a dangerous type of hunting with the whale being the largest mammal on earth living at high sea, and the hunting needed to be a well-coordinated team effort. The Beaufort Sea has only two species of whales: the beluga or white whale, which can only be hunted by the local Inuvialuit population, and the bowhead whale, which was severely depleted during the late 18th century. It was temporarily protected, and is now hunted again by special permit from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The Bowhead is one of the largest whales, reaching a length of 20 m and weight of 75 tonnes. Recent information claims that it can reach an age of 200 years.
Pauline Cove at Herschel Island, Yukon Territory was discovered to be an ideal harbour for whaling ships to over-winter. Up to 15 ships per year did so, and raised the local population to over 2,000, consisting whalers, traders and local Inuvialuit hunters.
These ships were in the harbour for nine months at a time. All these people had to be fed with game meat and only caribou were in the area in any number. However, during winter the caribou moved south.
The Inuvialuit did most of the hunting and as winter came they had to travel many miles to find any caribou. This annual hunt depleted the herd and the caribou stopped coming, even though the coast was their favourite calving area.
Very long trips became necessary to get meat. Fortunately, whaling came to an end when an artificial material had been invented to replace the use of whale bone.
The whalers left and so did the local Inuvialuit. Once being permanent residents along the coast from the Mackenzie delta, across the Yukon into Alaska, their tribe had a size of about 1,200.
Many of them were infected with European diseases brought in by whalers, for which they had no immunity. Many died with only about 200 surviving. All left the Yukon and made the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories their permanent home.
Currently, the Yukon coast has no permanent settlements, but the former residents come back periodically for hunting and fishing purposes.
There has been much debate about the impact whalers’ migration had on the caribou herd – now referred to as the Porcupine caribou herd. The size of the herd at the time is not known, nor the total annual harvest.
If the whalers took 2,000, the Inuvialuit tribe hunting year-round would have taken many more, given their much higher number of hunters.
On their migration south to winter ranges, the caribou will also have come into contact with interior native hunters. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the annual hunting losses were around 10,000, and if the herd’s size was only 100,000, this harvest was too high.