Resource protection, interpretive services and research ongoing at Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park

Elaine Taylor, MLA for Whitehorse WestWade Istchenko

As submitted to the Whitehorse Star on Friday, August 21st, 2015
by Elaine Taylor, Minister of Tourism & Culture and Wade Istchenko, Minister of Environment

As ministers for the departments of Environment and Tourism & Culture, we were fortunate to visit Herschel Island recently and observe the excellent work taking place at Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park.

The island is Yukon’s most northerly point, approximately five kilometres off our northern coast, and is home to more than 100 species of birds along with caribou and muskoxen. In addition to its fascinating flora and fauna, the park is of great historical importance to our territory. The land has been used for centuries for hunting, shelter and as a meeting place by the Inuvialuit. In the 1890s, whalers established a community at Pauline Cove due to its deep, safe harbour. The park was created in 1987 as a result of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. Its purpose is to conserve and protect wildlife and habitat, protect heritage resources, and allow for ongoing traditional use by the Inuvialuit.

During our recent visit, with the assistance of the Yukon government’s park rangers, we were able to see first-hand how the park is managed and hear directly from staff and visitors about their experience. It was valuable to see the excellent collaboration of our two departments, with Environment administering and managing the park, and Tourism and Culture managing the heritage resources found there for the benefit of Yukon residents and visitors.

A team of park rangers from the department of Environment monitors natural and historical resources, conducts patrols and surveys, and provides interpretive services to visitors. The park rangers also assist Parks Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard with search and rescue, and are true ambassadors for the island. They collect data, such as weather conditions, ice conditions, bird migration, and the condition and abundance of vegetation within established sampling areas, which in turn the Yukon government shares with researchers around the world.

Staff from Tourism and Culture work at the park to restore, conserve and document the history and historical structures that remain on the island, which include 12 standing buildings (dating from 1893 to 1930), several subterranean ice houses and many burial sites.

Given that the average temperature in the Arctic has risen three to four degrees over the past 50 years, changes to the permafrost and ground temperature are carefully monitored. Our departments work collaboratively to manage Herschel Island’s precious heritage resources and monitor any effects that are caused by the changing climate.

The park also allows Yukon to provide important contributions to science at an international level. During our visit, we met with researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute of Germany. They are doing field studies on the island to examine the rates of ground warming and deterioration of the permafrost. Researchers from McGill and Carleton universities have also worked on projects at Herschel Island. Other research includes collaboration between the Wegener Institute and the University of Edinburgh, with logistical support from Yukon government, to measure long-term vegetation plots to help understand growth trends. The department of Environment’s Ecological and Landscape Classification Program is also undertaking a full mapping project this year on the island, in cooperation with the Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope), to inform future wildlife management decisions.

One aspect of the strength and value of Herschel Island’s contributions is that data has been collected continuously there for more than 20 years. This longevity and continuity in scientific data collection can be seen in only a few areas of the circumpolar world, and it is part of what makes Herschel Island such an important contributor to research on an international level.

Last year, just over 400 people visited the park, which is accessible by boat and aircraft in the summer. This year, two cruise ship visits are expected, in addition to commercially-guided and private visits. Site visits are strictly controlled – with staff monitoring the effects visitors are having on the environment and artifacts.

Visitors to the park normally include cruise ship passengers, Inuvialuit, researchers, tourists, Yukon government employees, sailboat travelers and Coast Guard staff. This year, we were privileged to be among those visitors. Our trip to Herschel Island was a fascinating experience for both of us and we are proud that the Government of Yukon supports the important historical preservation and scientific research work taking place in this unique and remarkable place.