Eastern Yukon's North Slope.

In the Arctic, a massive new Inuvialuit-led conservation area protects Porcupine caribou grounds

The Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area is the final piece of a vast network protecting the northern stretch of the Yukon

A great expanse of tundra in the northeast corner of the Yukon is now protected by an Indigenous-led conservation area, safeguarding important Inuvialuit harvesting areas for future generations.

Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area covers almost 850,000 hectares of land nestled between the Beaufort Sea to the north, Ivvavik and Vuntut national parks to the west and the Northwest Territories to the east. With the establishment of this new conservation area, a decades-old vision to protect the northern stretch of the Yukon used by the Porcupine caribou herd comes to fruition.

“That’s one of our main sources of harvesting and in this day and age I think you need to protect that. Because something that money can’t buy is the food that we eat and the traditions that we practice on the land,” Billy Storr, a member of the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik working group and president of the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, told The Narwhal.

The new conservation area is also significant as Canada strives to meet its international commitments to protect 30 per cent of land and waters by 2030, as part of global efforts to stem nature losses. The Yukon is leading conservation efforts among provinces and territories, having protected 21.1 per cent of land, including Aullaviat/Anguniarvik, which covers 1.8 per cent of the territory.

“Indigenous-led conservation is one of the most important pathways for achieving Canada’s biodiversity goals and sustaining long-term conservation gains,” federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a press release.

Caribou resting on an ice patch in the mountains.
The Porcupine caribou herd makes one of the longest migrations of all mammal species. The addition of the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area to the protections along the northern stretch of the Yukon will conserve important summer foraging grounds used by the caribou. Photo: Peter Mather

Aullaviat/Anguniarvik protects ‘a magical place’

Generations of Inuvialuit have hunted caribou, fished and harvested berries in Aullaviat/Anguniarvik (pronounced Au-la-vat/Angu-niag-a-vik). And for the community of Aklavik, a small hamlet north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories, the area continues to be very important.

“It’s been in our history for years, and it’s going to be in our history for more years to come,” Michelle Gruben, the resource person for the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, said.

“The wording Aullaviat/Anguniarvik means ‘where the animals travel through and where people harvest,’ ” Gruben explained.

Every summer Gruben travels from Aklavik, just east of the Yukon border, with her family to Shingle Point in Aullaviat/Anguniarvik on the Arctic coast to harvest fish, caribou and berries. There’s always a cool breeze coming off the water, she said. “You might see caribou running along the beach.”

“It’s just a magical place,” Gruben said. To see it named Aullaviat/Anguniarvik is “so exciting,” she adds. “I even get little goosebumps on my arm as I’m talking.”

A trust fund is being established with a federal contribution of $10 million and an additional $3.5 million from philanthropic foundations. The fund will support the implementation of a management plan and the development of a stewardship and Guardians program.

Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.
Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

“This funding will allow Inuvialuit in Aklavik to get out on the land, share knowledge between generations, fill our freezers and secure a healthy and vibrant future for our young people and for Aklavik,” Jordan McLeod, the president and chair of the Aklavik Community Corporation, said in the press release. “We need to be out on the land to keep it healthy,” McLeod said.

With more shipping activity in Arctic waters and a growing number of cruise ships requesting to stop at Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park off the Yukon coast, Gruben said the Guardians program is “very important.”

“They can be our eyes and ears on the land,” she said.

The Porcupine caribou herd includes roughly 200,000 animals, making it one of the largest caribou herds in Canada. While many caribou herds have declined precipitously in recent decades, this one remains largely stable. Photo: Matt Jacques / The Narwhal

Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry report urged protection for Yukon North Slope from oil and gas development

Inuvialuit have long known the importance of the Yukon North Slope, as the northern stretch of the territory between Alaska and the Northwest Territories has come to be known.

But by the 1970s, its future was threatened. Oil and gas reserves had been discovered at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska in the late 1960s, plans for a gas pipeline right across northern Yukon were on the table and exploration was underway in the Mackenzie River Delta to the east.

The federal government tasked Justice Thomas Berger with assessing the impacts of potential gas pipelines running from Alaska across the northern Yukon to the Mackenzie Delta and then south through the Mackenzie Valley, in what’s known as the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry.

In his landmark 1977 report, which leaned heavily on Indigenous consultation, Berger recommended the entire northern stretch of the Yukon be protected by a wilderness park. Among his key concerns about a northern energy corridor were the risks it would pose to the Porcupine caribou herd.

Heritage buildings on Herschel Island
Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park was established following the 1984 signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. Forty years later, the addition of the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area completes a network of protected areas in the Yukon. Photo: George Tanski

In 1984, after a decade of negotiations, the federal government and the Inuvialuit signed the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, one of the first modern comprehensive land claim agreements. They agreed the Yukon North Slope would fall under a “special conservation regime” with a goal to protect wildlife, habitat and traditional uses. The agreement also established Ivvavik National Park and Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park and several co-management bodies. A decade later, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Final Agreement established Vuntut National Park just south of Ivvavik.

Inuvialuit negotiators had adopted Berger’s recommendation that the entire Yukon North Slope should be protected by a wilderness park. And, though the region was closed to development, it took a long time — and extensive Indigenous Knowledge and scientific studies — for the parties to the Inuvialuit Final Agreement to agree on a level of conservation for that eastern part of the North Slope, according to Jennifer Smith, chair of the Wildlife Management Advisory Council for the Yukon North Slope. 

Aullaviat/Anguniarvik protects important summer foraging grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd as well as habitat for grizzlies, polar bears, moose and muskox and completes a network of conservation areas protecting the entire Yukon North Slope.

A map of the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area, marked in yellow, which adds to the contiguous protections along the northern coast of the Yukon
The Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area covers almost 850,000 hectares of land. With the establishment of this new conservation area, a decades-old vision to protect the northern stretch of the Yukon is finally complete. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

Porcupine caribou herd finds food, respite from bugs in Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area 

The Porcupine caribou range stretches from Alaska across the Yukon and into the Northwest Territories. Each year the herd — a population of more than 200,000 barren-ground caribou, one of the largest herds in Canada — migrates vast distances between the Arctic coast in the spring and their wintering grounds, which in the Yukon fall south of the Porcupine River.

With the establishment of the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area most of the Porcupine caribou range in Canada is now fully protected. In Alaska, however, critical calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as the 1002 lands, remain at risk to potential oil and gas drilling in the future. 

“That’s been a long-going, enduring fight,” Smith told The Narwhal.

Even as efforts to protect Porcupine caribou calving grounds continue, establishing Aullaviat/Anguniarvik in the herd’s summer and fall foraging grounds is a significant milestone.

“When the Porcupine caribou herd is moving through that landscape, it’s like the stillness comes alive with life, with sound, with colour,” Smith said.

Here, the ocean breeze keeps the insects at bay as caribou build up the stores they need to survive the winter, and for cows, the weight they need to support their next pregnancy.

ANWR Yukon Alaska caribou
A trust fund for the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area will fund the creation of a Guardians program, to be the “eyes and ears on the land,” according to Michelle Gruben. Photo: Atsushi Sugimoto / Arctic Photo Laboratory

To see this area protected through the Aullaviat/Anguniarvik Traditional Conservation Area is “really significant,” Smith said, adding that “it wouldn’t be possible without the strong vision of Aklavik leadership.”

Storr said he’s “very excited” to see the conservation area finally established.

“We’ve had a few stumbling blocks along the way where it kind of derailed and went off kilter,” he said. “But we were persistent.”

“I’m 71 now, so it’s for my family, and not only my family but all the other families in Aklavik that rely on this area too for harvesting” he said. “That’s something near and dear to my heart.”

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

Heat, humidity, wildfires: what the weather report reveals about your health risks

For many Canadians, the summer months are a precious reprieve from long, cold and dark winters. Summer is for barbecues and beach days, camping and...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a big story. Sign up for free →
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s environment and climate reporting.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'
Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s environment and climate reporting.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'