NPCA mammoth tusk

Tusk, tusk: First Nation concerned Yukon placer miners digging up more than gold

As permafrost thaws, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Chief says territory needs better enforcement and regulation around miners excavating and keeping fossils, such as mammoth ivory

A Yukon First Nation is growing increasingly concerned that miners in the territory are walking away with ancient woolly mammoth ivory that’s both culturally and scientifically significant. 

“We know that over the many years that there’s been mammoth tusks found and not always given to the Yukon government or Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in,” Chief Roberta Joseph told the Narwhal. She said at least one tusk — fully intact or in pieces — is excavated per year around Dawson City, and likely more go unreported, considering the abundance of fossils in the area.  

“The activity is inconsistent with just mining gold [and] whatever other minerals. There’s lots of mammoth ivory that’s making its way into the market through jewelry stores,” Joseph said.

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The First Nation points to a lack of enforcement over what’s excavated in the territory alongside minerals in an Aug. 4 submission to the Yukon Mineral Development Strategy, an independent panel tasked with suggesting improvements to Yukon’s mining regime.

The submission states that the Yukon government, under a revamped mining system, must enforce prohibitions on illegal excavation and sale of tusks by miners through inspections and fines. 

“The illegal export and sale of fossil mammoth ivory deprives the Yukon of objects of cultural, scientific and historic significance, as well as potential monetary revenue, and it undermines [Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s] responsibilities as stewards of the land,” the submission says.

It continues that a lack of enforcement conflicts with the First Nation’s final agreement and legislation governing heritage resources. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in settled its land claims with the federal and territorial governments in the late 1990s, so, if a mammoth tusk is uncovered on its settlement lands, the First Nation rightfully owns it.

“It’s just not being enforced at this time,” Joseph said. “Maybe there needs to be more staff. There’s a limited number of staff and a vast area to cover.” 

According to a spokesperson with the Department of Tourism and Culture, paleontological regulations “do not exist” under the current regime, meaning there are guidelines, but no set rules around finding tusks and other fossils.

“Successive governments have opted for more informal management approaches,” said Alicia Debreceni in an email to The Narwhal. “For example, the Yukon government’s paleontology program works closely with miners in the gold fields to identify and collect scientifically significant fossils unearthed at placer operations.” 

But she said the mammoth ivory trade has been an issue in the territory, since there is no process or legal regulations around the extraction of the tusks.  

What you should do if you find a fossil in Yukon

Under Yukon’s Historic Resources Act, no one is allowed to search for, disturb or remove a fossil in Yukon without a historic resources permit, however the department confirmed that no process has been established to attain a permit. (Despite the lack of a permitting process, paleontological work continues in the territory and fossil finds are common.)

Since 1996, when the act was established, all fossils found in the territory, outside settlement lands and national parks, are property of the Yukon government.

According to a document prepared by the government that outlines best practices for fossil discoveries by placer miners, any finds must be reported to the Yukon paleontology program. But it’s largely left up to operators to follow through with this.

Placer mining yukon

Placer mining takes place along rivers and creeks, such as the Fortymile, in Yukon, liberating nuggets of gold from the rocks and gravel of the creek bed. Photo: Bureau of Land Management / Flickr

When a miner does find and report, say, a mammoth tusk, which can be up to 3.5 metres in length and weigh 100 kilograms, it has to be protected from the elements until members of the paleontology program visit the mine site to investigate the discovery for possible scientific significance.

“The scientific study of woolly mammoth teeth can provide important insight into past environments that an animal faced as well as enable the reconstruction of the health and life history of an individual mammoth,” the document says. “Some fossil woolly mammoth ivory has limited scientific significance and can be made available for commercial sale.”

If there’s no scientific relevance, the Yukon government may relinquish ownership to an individual and allow them to sell the ivory. 

But Joseph said it’s possible miners may be skipping these steps, concealing their finds to cash in on ivory, which has become even more rare — and possibly more valuable — since the elephant ivory trade was banned internationally in 1990.

She said even a piece of a mammoth tusk could fetch $1,000 on the market. 

According to an article about a mammoth tusk discovery in Alaska, mammoth ivory in the state is worth up to US$125  per pound — or C$165. That means a full-size tusk could net over $36,000.

“It has really supported ivory jewelry-making for many decades now,” Joseph said. 

Klondike region is fertile ground for fossils 

Ice age mammals, including woolly mammoths, steppe bison and American mastodons, lived in the region more than 10,000 years ago and their remnants are often found in central and northern Yukon, according to the territory’s guidelines around fossil finds by placer miners.

Permafrost — ground that’s permanently frozen — acts as an icy tomb that keeps not only old bones intact but sometimes hair, skin and muscle, explains the guidelines. 

“The permafrost preserved fossils of Yukon are renowned internationally because they often contain genetic material — DNA — of extinct animals preserved for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Climate change is causing more rain in the North. That’s bad news for permafrost

As the climate warms, permafrost is thawing and anything locked within it becomes exposed. This means more fossils, like mammoth tusks, could gradually be unearthed — especially by those already digging into Yukon ground. 

Placer mining, which is common in the Dawson City area, involves scooping up rocks and gravel from riverbeds and sorting through them for gold. To get at the gold, miners have to strip away “black muck,” organically rich, frozen sediment over top of the gravel and rock. The guidelines say that ice age fossils are often found at the layer where black muck meets the gold-bearing river rock.

Chief calls for more education on land rights

Joseph said, though legislation outlining ownership of fossils exists, the fact it’s not being enforced means valuable cultural artifacts leave the territory for profit. 

“The mammoth itself could be related to stories in our legends. There could be other artifacts from our ancestors that would have historical significance. It could be tied to our culture and traditions,” she said.

Joseph is calling for greater enforcement of the law, as well as more education around land rights, which could help to prevent theft of tusks in the future. 

“Education needs to be provided because there are many new people coming into the territory who are doing placer mining activities or quartz exploration,” she said. 

“Everyone just needs to understand that [fossils are] not part of mining. We just need to work together to ensure the laws are being followed and have respect for them.”

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