For generations upon generations, the people of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Carcross/Tagish First Nation have lived along the lakes and rivers of the Yukon River headwaters. Today the Southern Lakes First Nations continue to maintain their intimate relationship to and their commitment as stewards to the land, water, fish and wildlife. Supporting large intact ecological systems, unique plant communities, spawning Chinook and sockeye salmon and the Yukon’s highest mammal diversity, the Southern Lakes also maintains the territory’s largest human concentration and its associated infrastructure.
Primarily within the Boreal Cordillera, the boreal forest of the Southern Lakes is dominated by white and black spruce with lodgepole pine on its drier burned areas. While many south-facing slopes also support the most northern grassland communities in North America, this juxtaposition of northern boreal forests with grasslands creates a highly productive boreal association of plant communities and wildlife habitats. Wildlife species supported within the Southern Lakes include caribou, moose, mountain goat, Stone’s and Dall’s sheep, grizzly and black bear, wolf, wolverine, coyote, beaver, ground squirrel, hare, raven, ptarmigan, golden eagle and many others. In addition, the vast and abundant wetlands, large lakes and river systems provides for spawning salmon, song birds and large numbers of other migratory and resident birds.
During the Klondike Gold Rush wildlife greatly suffered from overharvesting, as thousands of hungry gold seekers descended on the Southern Lakes. Today, wildlife are still at a fraction of pre-Gold Rush numbers and are further challenged by increasing rates of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation from on-going and expanding forestry, mining and infrastructure development. Combined with changing climate conditions that are affecting major disturbance regimes, particularly fire, regional management planning and actions are warranted. Unguided by a jointly acceptable land use plan, the Yukon Southern Lakes First Nations are voicing concerns about these rapid and spreading impacts to their lands.
Though mandated under Chapter 11 of the Yukon First Nations Final Agreements, regional land plannning has not been initiated for the Southern Lakes. Recognizing the importance of regional planning and to best prepare for government-to-government land planning, the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, Kwanlin Dun First Nation and the Carcross/Tagish First Nation formed a collaborative partnership to initiate the Southern Lakes Indigenous Land Use Plan.
The Southern Lakes Indigenous Land Use Plan builds upon the foundational sources of First Nation strengths including community, culture, heritage, traditional knowledge and self-governance, while also leveraging the tools of technology and western science. A central product of this planning is the development and implementation of a Cultural and Ecosystem Based Conservation Design our combined traditional territories. This analysis will identify and prioritize areas across this landscape for their conservation importance and the relative risks to both their cultural and ecological importance. The conservation design will provide a unified First Nation vision and perspective on regional planning necessary to facilitate joint planning with the Yukon Government and to identify, develop and achieve land protective measures, sustainable resource management guidelines and meaningful joint First Nation management.
Currently there are no large protected areas fully established in this region. Special Management Areas under Final Agreements with the Southern Lakes First Nations include the 300,000 ha Kusawa Territorial Park and the 75,000 ha Agay Mene Territorial Park. Abutting the Taku River Tlingit Át Ch’îni Shà Conservancy, the Agay Mene Territorial Park has yet to be withdrawn from mineral staking and as of September 2010 the process has been on hold. In addition, within the western portion of the Southern Lakes the Kusawa Park, known for its populations of Dall sheep, mountain goats, raptors and grizzly bears, and supporting lake trout, whitefish, grayling and salmon, has yet to achieve an approved of a management plan. Given that approximately 75 percent of this ecoregion remains intact, establishment of these and possibly additional protected areas will be important considerations of the planning process.
Politically this is also a very advantageous time for the Southern Lakes First Nations to act strongly with their own planning and conservation initiative, with recent elections favoring the Yukon Liberals. Premier Silver holds the First Nation Final Agreements and reconciliation in much higher regard then previous administrations, providing an unprecedented opportunity within the Yukon Territory for First Nations to achieve expanded protections and management opportunities within their territories. Additionally, a potentially favorable Supreme Court of Canada’s hearing of the Peel Watershed case may have far-reaching positive impacts on land use planning in the Yukon where modern-day treaties have been negotiated.
The land protection and management progress achieved by the Taku River Tlingit First Nation through the Wóoshtin Wudidaa Atlin Taku Land Use Plan and Strategic Engagement Agreement with British Columbia led the Southern Lakes First Nations to reach out to Round River Conservation Studies seeking advice in support of their planning efforts.