Refugium: Yukon’s Peel Watershed & Why It Matters

Written by Ned Morgan.

Refugium” is a term for an unaltered ecosystem that can maintain large and diverse populations of native species rare or in flux elsewhere. Yukon’s Peel watershed has served as a massive refugium since the last Ice Age, and is one of only a handful left intact in North America.

Courtesy www.protectpeel.ca
Courtesy www.protectpeel.ca

Even if the Peel River watershed seems distant to most of Canada’s population – no doubt many have never heard of it – its importance cannot be overstated. In a time of abundant media coverage on more “must save” areas than anyone can keep up with, the Peel stands out.

The 68,000 square-km wilderness (93 percent of which is Crown Land) is largely pristine, and home to stable populations of threatened species including grizzly bear, mountain caribou, and peregrine falcon. The eight wild rivers of the Peel comprise a paddling destination of growing global renown.

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Last month, Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale ruled that the Yukon government’s amendments to the Peel watershed land-use plan did not respect the process outlined in the territory’s prior agreements with First Nations.

A rainbow touches a mountain summit on the Hart River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
Mountains near the Hart River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

In a rebuke to the right-leaning Yukon government, the court ruled the former had acted in a manner “inconsistent with the honour and integrity of the Crown.” Conservationists see the ruling as a major victory and hopefully a guarantee that the region will not be opened up to industrial development.

Last week, the Yukon government filed an appeal against the ruling. “We decided to appeal this because we believe that public governments must have the final say about what happens on public land,” Yukon’s minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Scott Kent told the CBC.

The public, however, has already spoken: A Datapath survey found that 78 percent of Yukoners favour permanent protection for the Peel Watershed.

So why should all Canadians demand protection for the Peel? Here are eight reasons – one for every major river in the watershed:

Whitewater like this.

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The Wind River’s rapids are mostly rated Class II, with many wave trains, sharp turns, and clashing currents – but no seriously technical water. Photo by Jill Pangman/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Campsites like this.

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The upper Snake River, with its lucent-water boulder gardens, flows through a deeply remote sub-arctic landscape. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Falcon’s-eye views like this. 

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A Gyrfalcon surveys the upper Snake River valley. The threatened Peregrine Falcon nests along the lower Snake River, a notable story of recovery after the species suffered decades of decline due to DDT. Photo by Jannick Schou/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Mountain trekking like this.

Glaciers carved these deep and sheer canyons in the incredible Mt MacDonald area of the Snake River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
Glaciers hewed these colossal canyons in the Mt MacDonald area of the Snake River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
Scenic Highlight of the Hart River. Marten Berkman on a ridge overlooking the canyons, gendarmes, and castellated ridges near Mount Netro. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
Marten Berkman on a ridge above the canyons, gendarmes, and castellated ridges near Mount Netro, Hart River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Chill-zones like this.

Sarah and Troy relax on one of the many wanders into alpine terrain above the Hart River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
The contemplative life on a ridge above the Hart River. Photo by Juri Peepre/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Fly-fishing with David Suzuki.

David Suzuki, with a grayling from the Hart River. Suzuki and members of his family paddled the Peel watershed's Hart River in the summer of 2011. After the journey, Suzuki joined First Nations in their call to protect the Peel watershed. Photo by Marten Berkman/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
David Suzuki with a grayling caught in the Hart River. Suzuki and members of his family canoed the Hart in the summer of 2011. After the journey, the scientist joined First Nations in their push to protect the Peel watershed. Photo by Marten Berkman/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Migrations like this.

The Peel watershed is part of the winter range of the barrenground Porcupine caribou herd. Every year, the huge herd migrates from calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, to wintering grounds in the northern Yukon. Photo by Karsten Heuer/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca
The watershed is part of the winter range of the barrenground Porcupine caribou. Every year, the massive herd migrates from calving grounds in  Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to winter in the northern Yukon. Photo by Karsten Heuer/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca

Water like this.

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McClusky Lake on the upper Wind River offers one of the few non-frigid places to swim in the Peel. The watershed is enormous: the Peel River flows into the Mackenzie, and drains 68,872 square km. Three tributaries (the Caribou, Trail and Road Rivers) rise in the Richardson Mountains to the north, and six tributaries drain from the Ogilvie and Wernecke Mountains to the south and west: the Ogilvie, Blackstone, Hart, Wind, Snake, and Bonnet Plume Rivers. Photo by Fritz Mueller/courtesy ProtectPeel.ca.

Learn how you can support the Peel Watershed here.

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