A Helping Hoof

A Helping Hoof

A Helping Hoof

5 min read / photo essay –

We do our best to provide large, safe habitats for all the Preserve’s residents. But accidents still happen. One of the most common reasons you’ll see an animal limping is due to sprains from Arctic Ground Squirrel holes. But, typically they’re back to normal in a few weeks.

However, for Jesse the moose, it hasn’t been so simple. Jesse injured her hoof late in 2020. The culprit? An errant nail that punctured her foot just above the hoof.

The Preserve’s Animal Care team responded immediately. First they removed the nail and gave her some antibiotics. Next, they followed that up with cleaning and bandaging.  After 6 weeks the bandages were off and Jesse appeared to be back to normal.

Another month passed and the Animal Care team noticed she wasn’t putting weight on that hoof again. They repeated the procedure, cleaning and bandaging again. By April the bandages were off again. Everything looked good.

But with the heat of summer, the moose have been spending more time in the wetland. All that time in the water softens their hooves, making it easier to re-injure. In July 2021, the team noticed she was favouring her foot again.

The first challenge was to move her out of the wet summer habitat to a drier location. With that solved, they were able to do another round of treatment on Jesse’s hoof.

• • •

Photo of moose in water.

Minimizing Stress

Dr. Maria Hallock used a jab stick (a long pole designed to inject medicine) to deliver sedatives to Jesse. Those drugs only took a few minutes to take effect.

The Animal Care Team moved in. Animal Care Assistant Bree immediately covered Jesse’s eyes. The towel helps reduce stress. Although she can’t move, Jesse was still aware of her surroundings.

Next, Bree, pulled out Jesse’s tongue and inserted an oxygen tube into Jesse’s nostril.

The team watched for changes in colour to her tongue. Light pink means her blood oxygen levels are good.

• • •

Photo of staff giving moose oxygen.

Getting the hoof ready

Dr. Maria Hallock then prepped an antiseptic hoof bath to soak and clean Jesse’s hoof.

• • •

Photo of staff caring for moose hoof injury.

The team in action

It takes a large team to care for a moose out in the field like this.

Even something simple like repositioning Jesse’s leg requires everybody.

• • •

Photo of team providing care for moose in the field.

Tracking Vitals

Throughout the entire procedure, Bree kept track of Jesse’s vital signs. This included heart rate, breathing rate, temperature and blood oxygen.

Tracking these vital signs help anticipate potential problems before they become serious.

• • •

Photo of staff using stethoscope to listen to moose heart rate.


While Jesse’s hoof soaks, Outdoor Operations Staff Jared and Andrea lent a hand. They were administering a pain medication. It was applied to the skin along her spine. As the medication absorbed through it provided some relief from the pain.

• • •

Photo of staff using stethoscope to listen to moose heart rate.


Meanwhile, Dr. Hallock gave Jesse antibiotics. These will help prevent infection while the wound heals.

• • •

Photo of staff injecting antibiotics to moose.

Exam and cleaning

Now that the hoof was a lot cleaner, Dr. Hallock could examine the injury.

She flushed out the wound and prepared it for bandaging.

For an animal this size, it looks like a tiny injury. But it’s in a sensative spot. As a result, this injury was enough to prevent Jesse from using this leg.

• • •

Photo of staff using stethoscope to listen to moose heart rate.

Bandage Artist

Dr. Hallock prepped the bandages. Her goal was to do everything she can for this injury while Jesse is sedated. This bandage sandwhich included a charcoal/silver dressing, a manuka honey dressing, aloe vera, and more antibiotics.

Sedating an animal is stressful. Doing as much as possible means they can wait longer before needing to sedate Jesse again.

Hopefully it will be another week or two before a bandage change is needed.

• • •

Photo of staff preparing bandages to apply to moose hoof.

Inquisitive Moose

By this time, the rest of the moose had noticed something was going on.

They all trooped over to peer through the fence!

• • •

Photo of moose looking towards camera.

No Moose Flies on Jesse

Well actually, there were quite a few at first.

“Moose flies” are a normal, but annoying part of a moose’s summer.

The flies bite the backs of the moose’s legs where the fur and skin is thinner. As a result, you’ll probably notice sores on the backs of our moose’s legs.

The water in the wetland provides some respite from these flies.

Dr. Hallock took the opportunity to give Jesse some extra relief. She sprayed an antiseptic spray on the backs of Jesse’s legs. Next she use a long acting spray on bug dope made for horses. The effect was instantaneous!

• • •

Photo of moose flies on back leg of moose.

Finishing Up

It was around this time that Dr. Hallock was finishing up the bandaging.

Keeping a bandage on an unenthusiastic moose’s foot requires solid bandaging technique – and duck tape!

With the procedure complete, they administered drugs to reverse the effects of the sedatives. The team quickly withdrew. Within minutes Jesse was regaining control of her body and looking around.

Dr. Hallock will keep Jesse out of the wetland for the remainder of the summer. Staying out of the water will help keep the wound drier and cleaner, giving it time to heal.

If you’re visiting the Preserve this summer and see a female moose sharing the male mule deer habitat – that’s Jesse!

• • •

Photos by Jake Paleczny and Lindsay Caskenette.

Photo of staff using duck tape to hold the bandage in place.
Jake Paleczny

Jake Paleczny

Executive Director

Jake Paleczny is passionate about interpretation and education. He gained his interpretative expertise from a decade of work in Ontario’s provincial parks in addition to a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. His interests also extend into the artistic realm, with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and extensive experience in galleries and museums.


Explore by Category

Explore by Author

[molongui_author_list output=select with_posts=yes]
Yukon Wildlife Preserve
Box 20191
Whitehorse, Yukon
Y1A 7A2

Proud member of:

With the support of:

Annual Report for 2020-21

Annual Report for 2020-21

Annual Report for 2020-21

About the Preserve in 2020-21

Our Mission

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve is a non-profit, charitable organization. The Perserve is operated under the full name of the Yukon Wildlife Preserve Operating Society (YWPOS).


The Yukon Wildlife Preserve will see informed voices that speak for the natural world.


To connect our visitors to the natural world by being a living centre of Yukon’s species.

Core Values

  • Relentlessly pursue the highest standard of animal care;
  • Be accessible to all visitors;
  • Model respect and teamwork with coworkers, volunteers, and our community; and,
  • Treasure the Yukon’s natural world.
Our Board and Committees

The YWPOS Board in 2020-21 included:

Alexandra de Jong Westman, President
Shawna Warshawski, 1st VP
Chris Evans, 2nd VP
Kirk Cameron
Melissa Croskery
Eamonn Pinto
Dennis Berry, non-voting YG rep
Drew MacNeil, non-voting YG rep

The YWPOS board meets approximately 6 times each year – quarterly meetings on the 3rd Wednesday of July, October, January and April, as well as a couple of special meetings depending on the projects / needs at hand.

The board is responsible for several key committees that provide oversight and support to various aspects of operations. These include:

  • Executive Committee – works closely with the Executive Director on a regular basis – meets monthly. Committee members:
    • Alexandra de Jong Westman, President
    • Shawna Warshawski, 1st VP
    • Chris Evans, 2nd VP
    • Jake Paleczny, ED
  • Animal Care Committee – oversight and support on care and management of the collection – meets monthly to quarterly depending on need. Committee members:
    • Dr. Maria Hallock (YWP Veterinarian)
    • Mary Vanderkop (Chief Veterinary Officer)
    • Randy Hallock (Manager of Outdoor Operations)
    • Bill Klassen
    • Dave Mossop
    • Justine Benjamin
    • Alexandra de Jong Westman
    • Shawna Warshawski
    • Jake Paleczny
  • Education Committee – assists on education and experience based projects – meets as required. Committee members:
    • Melissa Croskery (Chair)
    • Shawna Warshawski
    • Abi Horobin
    • Lindsay Caskenette
    • Jake Paleczny
  • Research Committee – reviews research proposals and makes recommendations to the board – meets as required. Committee members:
    • Alexandra de Jong Westmann
    • Chris Evans
    • Dave Mossop
    • Fiona Schmiegelow
    • Jake Paleczny
    • Justine Benjamin
    • Katelyn Friendship
    • Kirk Cameron
    • Maria Hallock
    • Shawna Warshawski

Other ad hoc committees and work groups are formed as required to tackle specific projects!

Learn more about the YWPOS Board, Board Committees, or connect with the board.

The YWPOS is seeking passionate new board members to take on the following roles:

  • Finances / Treasurer;
  • Fundraising and sponsorship;
  • Animal Care Committee Chair.

To find out more and get involved, please contact Alexandra de Jong Westman (President, YWPOS) at president@yukonwildlife.ca.

Our Staff

The YWPOS Management Team in 2019-20 included:

Jake Paleczny, Executive Director/CEO
Randy Hallock, Manager of Outdoor Operations
Dr. Maria Hallock, Veterinarian
Lindsay Caskenette, Manager of Visitor Services
Abi Horobin, Manager of Education and Programming (joined mid-season)
Erin Jamieson, Manager of Education and Programming (departed mid-season)

Learn more about the YWP staff and get in touch.

President’s Report

Dear members, supporters, and all those passionate about the wilds of the Yukon:

This year, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve celebrated 17 years of exceptional animal care and visitor experience, and none of it would be possible without our dedicated staff and the support of you – our members, our partners, our sponsors, and our generous donors. On behalf of the Board of Directors, a huge thank you to you all!

Yukon wildlife and ecology is unique and worthy of deep understanding and appreciation, with conservation and management supported by passionate voices and based on sound science that respects Indigenous rights and knowledge. To help coming generations be those educated and respectful voices, the dedicated staff at the Preserve have worked tirelessly this past year (and every year!) to ensure all our visitors have those up-close and personal experiences to inspire and infuse that passion while keeping our animals and visitors, safe.

To continue giving you exceptional experiences and provide our animals with exceptional care, we are embarking on discrete projects as envisioned through our 10-year Master Plan to grow our educational programs, interpretive experiences, and research capabilities. This will require some changes in landscape and infrastructure, where we are also excited to better integrate traditional knowledge in our programming and our interpretive experiences. None of these projects and necessary growth, continued dedication to the health and wellbeing of our animals and that of the wildlife requiring our rehabilitation services, could be possible without the continued support of you.

On behalf of the Board of Directors and the Staff, thank you again for your ongoing support, and we look forward to seeing you out in our new bus, on foot, on bike… or however you like to see the animals!

Warmest wishes for the summer,

Alexandra de Jong Westman
President, YWPOS Board of Directors

Photo of moose in fall colours.

Executive Director’s Report

It’s probably safe to say: we didn’t see that coming. The global COVID pandemic errupted just as we started our 2020-21 year.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

I want to recognize three of the ways my team stepped up to meet this challenge head on.

First, we recognized right away that this had the potential to be financially devastating. Coming off of our best year ever, it was hard, depressing work to develop a series of ever more conservative scenarios. Those are hard conversations. But my team focused in on what mattered most – our animals and our people. I’m really proud to say that despite losing more than half of our regular visitation, we ended the year in a really strong financial position.

Second, as our on-site visitation plumetted, our visitor services and education teams pivoted to keep our community engaged. It’s not easy to have everything turned upside down and then to learn new skill sets. They did an incredible job, posting 20 videos (including immersive 360 videos) and more than 50 blog articles in the 2020-21 year. The stories our team told through those videos and articles showcase an awesome diversity of perspectives on Yukon’s wildlife and our work at the Preserve.

Third, was how our team managed near continuous change with so many unkonwns. My team compartmentalized to protect each other, reogranized buildings (like the front cabin), adapted work plans (when animals were fed, how teams worked together), sought out funding (the list is long), submitted many operational plans to the CMOH, put new systems into place (we started selling tickets and memberships online),  made dramatic shifts to keep programs running (like Nature Camps), and so much more. They just made it work.

I’m incredibly grateful to my team at the Preserve for their creativity, open-mindedness, resilience and focus!

I’m also happy to report on some other highlights from last year.

Support from our Community

We received a record number of donations – particularly through the early phases of the pandemic and leading up to Christmas. You may have heard me say this before – especially if one of those donations was yours – but knowing you believe in our work energizes and propels us forward.  From the bottom of my heart – thank you!

A couple of donations I want to recognize include an anonymous foundation donating $20,000, and Steve Smyth and his family donating more than $3,000 (including matching the funds raised at Run Wild).

This was also a record year for memberships. We were really happy to be able to provide a safe, outdoor setting for recreation. Moving to online sales and renewals helped too. 

Thank you to everybody who had our backs this year. It helped end the year in good position, which is so much more than we’d hoped for.


With changes came opportunities – including the opportunity to host Yukon’s 2020 Bioblitz. In late July 2020, dozens of experts and enthusiasts descended on the Preserve to do the most thorough inventory of biodiversity ever completed on the property. More than 1,000 observations of more than 450 species were made in those two days. Results from bug traps (bug slurry) were also sent to a world leader in DNA based identification. Some early results from the DNA barcoding included a small species of spider that had not ever been recorded in Yukon. All told that has brought the tally to just over 630 species now. Read more here.

End of Year Equipment

Thanks to an aggressive internal financial response early in the pandemic, community support, and territorial and federal COVID subsidies, the Preserve finished the year in a good position. We were able to make a number of purchases we’d deferred as the pandemic hit one year earlier. Some highlights include:

  • New waterlines to replace aging, leak prone lines
  • Wrapping the Low Floor bus
  • A wood chipper – to divert the majority of sticks from burn piles into more useful woodchips
  • A bagging lawnmower to help tackle the foxtail problem
  • A newer truck to replace the worst of our fleet (this is the YWP’s first truck manufactured in this millennium!)

As crazy as this year has been, I’m happy to count it as a success! A huge thanks to our team here and our local community for all the support they’ve shown us over this past year.


Jake Paleczny
Executive Director
Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Photo of moose skull at -40c

Ex-Officio Report

During 2020-21, the Department of Environment worked with the Yukon Wildlife Preserve Operating Society to develop a one-year funding agreement to provide up to $746,640 for the operation of the preserve until the end of March 2022.

This agreement provides stable funding to deliver a high standard of care for the animals kept at the preserve in a safe and secure natural environment. The one-year timeframe for the funding agreement provides some flexibility to observe the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the preserve’s revenues and operations.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, the Department of Environment has also discussed with the Operating Society the long-term planning considerations for the preserve and exploring more predictable long-term funding approaches for future years.

Operations Report

Some of the highlights from the Outdoor Operations Department include:

Spring / Summer 2020

  • Site clean-up, including cleaning up supplies, garbage disposal, etc
  • Removed old fuel tank at green shop
  • Assisting Animal Care with in the field medical procedures
  • Re-deck and paint trailer
  • Hauling water
  • Running insulators for electric fence
  • Lynx catchpen: clean pen, geotech and chips to mitigate future foxtail issues
  • Cutting browse (assisting AC)
  • Clearing fence lines
  • Painting posts
  • Fix flight pens
  • Build alleyway to back pastures (per Master Plan animal handling diagrams – see green lines on the map)
  • Finished cross fence in sheep pasture and removed old fence
  • Removed old fence in deer pasture (females)
  • Built alleyway from old facility/compound to dam (per Master Plan animal handling diagrams – see green lines on diagram below)

Fall / Winter

  • Pushed up stick piles in back 40 to burn this winter
  • Continuing clean up and dump runs
  • Work on electric fence
  • H&S Inspections and lots of follow-up on fixing deficiencies
  • Changed bumper rail in male muskox habitat.
  • Grinding carrots and apples
  • Burnt the 4 large brush piles with support of Hootalinqua Fire Department
  • Plowed snow, and more snow, and more snow and more snow…
  • Burnt small stick piles
  • Sourced year-end equipment purchases
Map showing construction of new alleyway for animal handling.

Above: The green lines show the newly constructed animal handling chute for safely and easily moving animals from the central compound to the dam and lake roads.

Map showing location of newly constructed moose elk handling chute.

Above: the newly constructed animal handling chute (in green) connects the large ungulate habitat in the back to the rest of the Preserve, enabling easier, safer movement of moose and elk back and forth. Below: the Hootalinqua Fire Department assisting with burning the large brush piles.

Photo of brush piles on fire and hootalinqua firetruck and crew

Animal Care Report

Main Collection

As of March 31st 2020.



In main collection

  • North American elk 7.8
  • Moose 3.2
  • Woodland caribou 3.7
  • Mule deer 14.30
  • Thinhorn sheep 13.21
  • Mountain goat 5.21
  • Muskox 6.7
  • Bison 2.12
  • Canadian lynx 1.2
  • Arctic fox 0.2
  • Red fox 2.0

Key: male. female. Unknown


Other Updates:

  • Bison and Caribou bred in fall 2020 per collection plan
    • June 18 2021: 3 baby bison born so far! Still expecting baby caribout in spring 2021.
  • Lynx bred in early 2021 per collection plan
    • June 18 2021: still expecting kittens in spring 2021.
  • Planning to breed bison, muskox and caribou in summer/fall 2021 per collection plan.


(Born April 1, 2020-March 31, 2021)

Bison: 1 (May 2020)


(Deceased April 1, 2020-March 31, 2021)

Mountain Goat: 2 (April 2020, Sep 2020)
Mule Deer: 12 (2020)
Thinhorn Sheep: 3 (2020)
Arctic Fox: 1 (April 2020)
Peregrine Falcon: 1 (April 2020)
Caribou: 2 (Nov, Dec, 2020)
Bison: 1 (2021)


Wildlife Rehabilitation Report

Overall, Wildlife Rehabilitation was much busier this summer than last. Highlights include a family of ducks – and of course a young moose!

This chart shows all arrivals between April 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021. Current status incdlues all known outcomes up to June 18, 2021.

Species Released Deceased Still in care
Pine Grosbeak 2    
Mallard Duck 9 1  
Bohemian Waxwing 1 1  
American Robin 3 2  
Sparrow juv 2 2  
Gull 3    
Sharp Shin Hawk   1  
Raven   4  
Northern flicker   1  
Spruce grouse   4  
Kingfisher   1  
Bald Eagle 3* 1  
Lesser Scaup 1    
Junco 4    
Boreal owl   1  
Yellow Billed Sapsucker 1    
Magpie 1    
Tree swallow 14    
Golden Eagle   1
Frog   1  
Red Squirrel 11    
Moose 1**
Total 56 21 1

* Two of the three bald eagles were successfully released in May 2021.

** This moose was released from the YWP’s rehabilitation program to join the main collection in fall 2020.


July 3 2018 – July 3, 2019

Species Released Deceased

Still in care

/ YWP residents

American robin 3 2 1
Tree Swallow 2
Pine Grosbeak 1
Sparrow 2
Crossbill 1
American Kestrel 1
Northern Goshawk 1
Moose 2
Bald Eagle 1
Red Squirrels 9 4
Hawk Owl 1
Snowshoe Hare 1
Red Fox 1
Total 18 12 7



Animal Care Committee

The ACC is one of the Preserve’s most active committees – it provides oversight and support on care and management of the Preserve’s collection. The committee meets 4-8 times a year and provides recommendations to the board on a range of topics – including collection plan, animal care policies, aquisition and disposition of animals and more. To find out more or if you have expertise to contribute to this committee, reach out to president@yukonwildlife.ca

Visitor Services Report

Retail Operations

The Preserve was headed towards exponential growth in retail sales in the previous year until Covid forced a 2 month closure of the facility to the public. Upon reopening measures to ensure public and staff safety meant that the Preserve’s Little Gift Shop was not open to visitors to come in and browse gift items. Visitor Services got creative with the help of Outdoor Ops obtained a rolling display unit to help encourage shoppers. What we noted was a small increase in sales of which became greater when the border to BC opened. We see retail sales are not strong among our locals and members.

Line chart showing retail sales by year.
Bar chart showing retail sales by month since 2011.
Photo of YWP staff showing off roll out merch cart.
Chart of retail sales.

Retail sales suffered a 69% decline from the previous fiscal year (2019-2020). Values for both Retail Sales and Visitation appear to align with total fiscal values from the years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. This gives indication of per capita spending of $1.13.

The month to month sales shows $0 values for the 2 months in which the Preserve was closed to the public. What is notable is October sales (and closely behind that September) from this year being close in total value to the previous year. This is likely related to the fall traffic the Territory saw from the BC bubble.


Overall visitation in 2020-2021 decreased 56.9% from the previous year (2019-2020).

October and March visitation from this fiscal year to last fiscal year are the most comparable. While October is explained with the bubble traffic, the numbers for March correlate to the closure in 2020 March 23 and the fantastic winter conditions in March of 2021 along with March Break stays given travel restrictions in place at the time.

These monthly visitation numbers have very similar alignment with 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 numbers when territory-wide national and international visitation was low before it’s steady incline to immediately pre-covid.

Chart of visitation to YWP over last 17 years
Chart showing monthly visitation.
Bar chart showing member and non-member visits to the YWP.

Overall average Member versus non member visits are very close with a slightly higher non-member visitation rate. In previous years we would see significantly more non-member visits upwards of 75% compared to member visits.

Aligned with the bubble opening and closing we see the winter months dominated by member visits, often with repeat visits by a household within a month period.

Line chart showing member visitation by month.

Visitation Type

People like to walk – especially amid a pandemic and being outside is more than ever recommended! It’s also a great way to experience the Preserve. With incredible winter conditions we saw lots of fat bikers, skiers, and kick sledders within the 11,902 visitors under general admission. Other guided tours include charters, facility rentals and Step-on’s. The most popular were the 1 hour step-on tours with the retirement homes. These tours have been extremely positive for both YWP staff and the long term care home residents while options for outings were very limited.

Pie chart showing how people visit the YWP.

Visitation through Events

Several events this year were cancelled given they fell upon our closure time, those being our two major early year events including Easter Eggstravaganza and Yukoner Day.

We were able to successfully and safely plan and run our Run Wild Event and Wild Trick Treat 2020 editions.

  • Run Wild 2020 saw 61 present participants and 69 participants and raised $4,223. These numbers both participant and monies raised beat our 2019 event thanks to a matching donation by Steven Smyth of direct fund raised $1,890. Yukoner’s supported further by taking advantage of a 15% discount promotion at the Preserve’s Little Gift Shop.
  • Wild Trick or Treat 2020 – Our fast growing event! This year adjusting to Covid, we continued encouraging non-contact beyond our check-in experience to an upgraded scavenger hunt to be also contactless. Games and activities along the way while families worked on the scavenger hunt clues were a welcomed encouragement to get to the chocolate. Most important and loved are the spooktacular pumpkin feedings with our carnivores in which the lynx feeding continues to prove to be the most well attended with 45 people.
  • A (one-time) new joint event that was a success was the 3 day Yukon Bioblitz being held for the first time at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. The article written in January 2021 identified over 400 species recorded, but there are now well over 600 and counting.

Education and Programming Report

Swan Haven School Programming – April 2020

The pandemic struck just days before YWP staff were to head out to Swan Haven to deliver 1/2 day school programs throughout April 2020 to Yukon students. The education team pivoted and instead put their efforts into developing classroom extensions and lesson plans designed to allow more students the opportunity to engage with Swan Haven’s main theme about the importance of early-season open water for migratory birds.

This include five lesson plans for K-4 that brought together art, music, literature and ecology. Lesson extensions included a graphing challenge using daily and historical swan counts from Swan Haven. The team also created an ambient 360° video of the site.

Check out the new teacher resources section on our Swan Haven page!

Early in 2017, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve (YWP) and Yukon Wildlife Viewing Program (WVP) signed an agreement for the YWP to develop and deliver experiential, outdoor school programming at the Swan Haven Interpretive Centre. A successful partnership was born!

Screenshot of YWP's Swan Haven webpage

Spring School Programming – May/June 2020

Like Swan Haven School Programs, our programs delivered in partnership with the Department of Education were cancelled. In a typical year the Preserve’s Education team would see around 800 students from early May to mid June.

This year the team pivoted to focus on digital content. They produced a series of immersive 360° videos on animals at the Preserve in both English and French. They also developed a classroom extensions for each video as well as additional resources to help make the most out of these resources in a remote learning environment.

Check out the videos on the new Teacher Resources page.

The YWP has partnered with the Department of Education since the mid-2000’s to provide curriculum based school programs to Yukon students at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. With financial support from the Department, the Preserve provides these programs to Yukon students at no charge.

Nature Camps – June-August 2020

Fortunately, the Preserve was able to run Nature Camps at full capacity. This was thanks to generous financial support from CANNOR to keep day-camps around Yukon running through summer 2020. The Preserve was able to use that funding to split the camp into three autonomous groups with kid/instructor totals not exceeding 10 people.

That included hiring on drivers and busses from Arctic Range, additional support staff, new PPE and cleaning supplies, and tents from Marsh Lake Tents and Events. Camps ran weekly from June 15 to August 14. In all, 178 kids participated.

It was a mammoth effort, but there were lots of happy parents!

Photo of kids hands holding frogs over a bucket.
Photo of kids outside watching bison in the winter.

Fall School Programming – Nov/Dec 2020

By the time fall school programs rolled around, we knew a lot more about how to mitigate the risks of COVID. The Education team developed a plan that was approved by the office of the CMOH and programs proceeded!

Thanks to the continued support of the Department of Education, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve provided outdoor experiential programs to 460 students (plus 25 teachers & 40 other chaperones) between November 12th, 2020 and December 17th, 2020. The season was booked to 93% of capacity. As in past seasons, teacher and student feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Due to the ongoing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season involved some additional precautions and preparation by the YWP education team. In addition to continuing to successfully modify program time slots to meet teacher and bussing needs, YWP staff took additional care and precautions by doing extra cleaning of the bus and facility, as well as wearing masks.

The YWP has partnered with the Department of Education since the mid-2000’s to provide curriculum based school programs to Yukon students at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. With financial support from the Department, the Preserve provides these programs to Yukon students at no charge.

The Preserve in 2021-22

Thank you.

We are forever grateful for your continued support. Our commitment to wildlife—and to you—our community—are at the heart of everything we do.

Here’s some of what we’ve been working on or have planned for 2021-22:

  • Fencing security upgrades to caribou and moose habitats;
  • Business Planning for the “Moose Cabin” phase of the Master Plan;
  • Planning new public events to be added this summer (more on that coming soon);
  • Negotiating new funding agreement with Department of Environment – and working with other YG departments;
  • Revising governance policies;
  • Developing new gift shop products in collaboration with local artists;
Photo of YWP staff working on installing fencing.

The Outdoor Operations crew lays down and attaches an “apron” on the outside of the new fence on the lower corner of the caribou habitat. With smaller spaces in the mesh, the caribou and their babies will be safer from potential predators.

Photo of bus with "your name here" text.

Let’s work together!

Do you see yourself in what we do? Please consider sponsoring specific projects and have your company featured on-site and online! Potential projects include:

  • Trail development;
  • Purchasing a new truck;
  • Sponsor an Event;
  • Alternative Energy;
  • Fencing and animal security enhancements;
  • Site utility improvements.

We still need your support!

We are grateful to have weathered 2020. However, we’re not out of the woods yet. While tourism remains greatly diminished, so too does an important source of funding. Your continued support will help mitigate the financial impacts on the long-term sustainability of the Preserve. That said, the ongoing, daily costs of caring for 200+ animal doesn’t change; so we’re not out of the woods yet. We still need your support.

Ways to Support

• • •

Leverage extra resources, services or expertice and make an in-kind contribution to the Preserve’s day-to-day operations.

Make a one-time or monthly tax-receiptable donation to education, wildlife rehabilitation, or general operations.

Turn your businesses cash or in-kind support for the Preserve into PR for your business and perks for your team.

Ways to Stay Connected

• • •

Get the latest at

Read original blog articles

Get the latest videos

See photos and more at

Jake Paleczny

Jake Paleczny

Executive Director

Jake Paleczny is passionate about interpretation and education. He gained his interpretative expertise from a decade of work in Ontario’s provincial parks in addition to a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. His interests also extend into the artistic realm, with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Ontario and extensive experience in galleries and museums.


Explore by Category

Explore by Author

[molongui_author_list output=select with_posts=yes]

Surviving a Cold Snap

Surviving a Cold Snap

Surviving a Cold Snap

15 minute read –
This is Part 3 of a 4 part series by guest author and ecologist, Joshua Robertson on how wildlife at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve stays warm (thermoregulates) in the winter. Read Part 1: Staying Warm in the Yukon and Part 2: Winter Heat Losses.


A few weeks ago, my partner and I had the beautiful fortune to welcome a baby into our family. For me (and my partner), the birth of this baby has meant stepping into the joyous and mystifying waters of parenthood for the very first time. Quite simply, we’re exhilarated. And like most first-time parents, we’re also, perhaps, a touch naive. Despite months of preparative reading and numerous discussions with other early parents, hardly a few hours had passed after his birth when questions began to percolate. How long should feedings last? Is co-sleeping preferable to sleeping separately? And the question most influenced by my career biases: how can we tell if our baby is sufficiently warm, or overheating?

Josh standing outside in snow with his new baby.
Upon realising the absolute dependence of our child on external help, the last of these questions noticeably shook me. For many years, I had viewed thermoregulation through an admittedly narrow lens. I contextualised the costs of warming and cooling in endotherms as manageable. True, I had acknowledged that such costs were often substantial, but I also coloured this acknowledgement with an all-too-human optimism bias. For example, crossbills can spend enormous amounts of energy on warming in the winter (often doubling their energy expenditure from summer to winter), but we still see crossbills persisting regularly through the worst of the season. So, my subconscious told me, why not ignore the situations where managing costs of warming isn’t possible?
Curiously, facing the decision of how to clothe our child allowed me to temporarily silence certain optimism biases. The costs of clothing him improperly, and thus challenging his capacity to thermoregulate, were simply too large to ignore; they could mean losing him. To me, this was a rather disquieting thought. Yet the lethal toll of poor thermoregulation is what all warm-blooded animals (or “endotherms”) must face, and have faced, since their evolution millions of years ago. (Of course, a similar toll can apply to many cold-blooded animals, or “ectotherms”, that rely on thermoregulatory behaviours, such as sun-bathing, to survive). How equally disquieting!
Photo of crossbill foraging.
But why stew on such bleak thoughts at all? Why begin our discussion in this way? Well, in my opinion, doing so leads us to two interesting and useful conclusions:

  1. Extreme cold and extreme heat for many animals can be, and often is, a real threat to their survival, and,
  2. Facing this threat has paved the way for the evolution of some truly spectacular thermoregulatory strategies and capacities.

Evolution can be a brutal, yet wonderful process.

Thermoregulating in a Cold Snap

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at how certain endotherms at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve are challenged by cold snaps that would undoubtedly prove lethal to an unprepared human. In doing so, we’ll also take a look at how these animals compare to one another in their thermoregulatory strategies and capacities. If you’re like me, I think you’ll find the conclusions intriguing. So let’s put aside the sombre tone and see what findings emerge.

Now if you happened to read my last post (Winter Heat Losses), you’ll recall that to understand the costs of thermoregulation across certain Yukon-dwellers, Jake Paleczny (our Executive Director) and myself braved the January cold to capture infrared thermographic images of animals cared for at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. With these images, we were able to quantify just how much heat animals were losing to the environment, and thereafter, estimate how much energy these animals would need to spend to compensate for their heat-loss. In doing so, we discovered that at -12°C, the average Moose might spend slightly less than one McDonald’s cheeseburger worth of energy on warming across a 4 hour period. By contrast, the average Thinhorn Sheep (or “Dall Sheep”) might spend about one and three quarters cheeseburgers in similar circumstances, and the average Muskox, around negative one half of a cheeseburger. And where did Jake fit in? We estimated his expenditure to be about one cheeseburger, despite wearing full winter gear. To top these findings off, we also discovered that if we were to scale the costs of warming according to usual daily energy expenditure in each animal, Jake would probably be spending more than each of the other observed animals on warming. All together, I’d say that these are some interesting findings. But remember, our observations were made at -12°C – hardly a real thermal challenge for Yukon natives (particularly for those in Old Crow, where record lows have reached nearly -60°C).
So what happens to costs of thermoregulation when a true challenge strikes? For example, what do costs of warming look like when temperatures fall below -30°C, as they did in Whitehorse during early February?  Below, I’ll do my best to answer that question. But first, I think it’s important that I remove some turbidity from our discussion. In our past discussion, my estimates of cheeseburger-use across animals were about as opaque as the Liard River. Indeed, some of you were likely wondering how such estimates were made at all, and how they might be prone to error. These are good things to wonder. So how were our estimates made after all? If the answer to that question doesn’t interest you, I’d recommend you skip a few paragraphs to get to our final findings below. For those who are interested, the next few paragraphs detail the path that myself (and other thermal biologists) would typically walk to understand how an animal is interacting with, and adjusting to, their thermal environment. A detailed description can also be found in one of my recent publications about black-capped chickadees.

Estimating the Cost of Thermoregulation

Before I begin, I’ll be honest and state that the manner by which I’ve estimated costs of thermoregulation may seem more convoluted than necessary. Actually, in some ways, it probably is more convoluted than necessary. But it does reflect standard practice in the field of thermal biology (for good reason), and it does provide opportunities to paint a fuller picture of what is happening across an animal at the time that an infra-red thermographic picture was captured. With that in mind let’s begin.

Thermal image of Thinhorn Sheep at 34c below 0c. Scale is in rads.
Let’s first return to an image of a handsome male Thinhorn Sheep, captured at -12°C (shown above). First, have a look at the scale bar on the top right of the image. You’ll notice that the range of values has changed substantially from those in our previous images. That’s because these values now represent the amount of infrared radiation (specifically, a subset of infrared radiation referred to as “long-wave” radiation) that the camera has detected at each pixel. Notice that these values are not in degrees Celsius, nor are they in any other unit of temperature. Rather, they represent units of energy per area (possibly kilowatts per meter squared, or “kW/m2”, however, the actual units are not disclosed by the camera producer). Remember, heat has the capacity to do work, so it can be measured in units of energy.  These values in kW/m2 are precisely what our infrared thermographic camera gives us – the next step is to figure out what they really mean for a specific object (our sheep).
Line drawing of energy sources and losses when taking thermal images.
To make sense of our energy measurements, we first need to acknowledge that the infra-red radiation striking our camera can come from a number of sources: our sheep, the molecules in the atmosphere, and, of course, the sun (either travelling directly to our camera, or by reflection from other objects like the surrounding snow or the sheep’s pelage). Furthermore, some of the infra-red radiation travelling toward our camera can, and will be, absorbed by molecules in the air (like water vapour) before reaching us. This means that if we wish to make any inferences about heat-loss from our sheep (indicated by the teal arrow in the diagram above), we’ll need to control for the heat produced by the sun and the environment, the amount of water vapour in the air, and the reflective capacity of the sheep’s fur. Thankfully, we can make pretty good guesses at these factors by looking at the temperature and humidity at the time we captured our image, and by drawing on measurements of fur reflectance in other animals. Once we’ve controlled for these values and followed what’s called “Planck’s Law”, we’re left with the beautiful image below.
Thermal image of Thinhorn Sheep at 12c below 0c. Scale is in degrees.
Notice that the values are now in units of temperature? A pretty good step forward!

Now what about the costs of heat-loss? To estimate this value, a little more calculation will be required. First, you may recall from high-school physics class that heat can be lost in any of three ways: conduction, convection, and radiation. The first method describes the transfer of heat from a solid object to another solid object (think of your lap after being warmed by a cat). By contrast, the other two methods described transfer of heat from a solid to a fluid, and to empty space (think of your hands after warming them by the fire). Estimating heat-loss by each method requires the use of several biophysical theories and equations (nicely summarised by Dominic McCafferty and others), but there are a few common and convenient threads running through them. For example, calculating heat-loss by each method requires knowledge of:

  1. The temperature differential; that is, how big the temperature difference is between the warm object and the “thing” that it is losing heat to,
  2. Resistance; that is, how much an object opposes heat flow (this value factors into properties of an object called the “heat transfer coefficient”, or “thermal conductivity”), and,
  3. Surface area; that is, how much space there is for heat to transfer between a solid object and the “things” it is in contact with.

If we think about it breifly, these values, or parameters, are actually quite intuitive. Big temperature differentials, like those Jake experienced between his body and the air, mean big heat losses. Similarly, low resistance and a large surface area, like those experienced by our large and poorly-insulated moose, also mean big heat losses. For our calculations of heat-loss, we can make strong guesses at resistance and temperature differential values by looking at previous studies on heat emission from biological tissues, and by – you guessed it – using the temperature values that we obtained from our thermal images.

But what about surface area? Now here’s where things can turn sour. Measuring the surface area of an animal can be extremely difficult, especially since the body shape of most animals hardly represents a simple geometrical shape. (As a quick thought experiment, imagine measuring the surface area of a human ear). This, then, is where error around our cheeseburger estimates mostly come in. Why? Because the best we can do is approximate with some simple shapes that are drawn to match known animal measurements – like in the image below.
Line drawing showing a sheep being represented by simple shapes for surface area estimation.
These approximations work, but aren’t perfect; that is, you could probably guess that the figure on the right is a sheep, but it certainly wouldn’t pass as one to another sheep (although if we were talking about poultry, the story might be different). With that in mind, I wouldn’t recommend betting a limb on our cheeseburger estimates. While our estimates likely do draw close to the true values we’d see in nature, they will, admittedly, stray by some moderate degree. This source of error is one that has plagued thermal biologists for quite some time, and even the more complex models still usually represent mammals as furry tubes (for example, see Porter and Kearney, 2009)
Now that we’ve cleared the Liard, let’s get back to heat-loss at the preserve during our cold snap.  Remember, we’re looking at how animals respond to temperatures below -30°C. Care to guess what this means for our temperature differentials?

Moose and Muskox at -34°c

To begin, let’s revisit a few candidates from last week: the Moose and Muskox (depicted below). Sadly, we weren’t able to capture any images of the Thinhorn Sheep during the cold snap, so we’ll have to leave that species to our imagination for today.

If you recall from our previous discussion, our Moose and Muskox spent around one, and negative one-half cheeseburgers worth of energy on keeping warm at -12°C across four hours. So what does their expenditure look like during a true cold snap?
For the Moose, quite a bit different. At -34°C, our imaged Moose is likely spending about two whole  cheeseburgers on maintaining a constant body temperature across a four hour period. That’s a little over a two-fold increase from their expenditure at -12°C. As you can imagine, two whole cheeseburgers is quite a bit of energy to spend on warming, particularly when that energy is sourced from sparse patches of foliage. In nearby Alaska, Moose largely subsist on the twigs of various willow species throughout the winter months, including Feltleaf Willow, Diamondleaf Willow, and Greyleaf Willow (see Risenhoover, 1989). Surprisingly, previous studies have shown that Moose are able to extract a fairly high amount of energy from the tissue of these plants: approximately 5 calories/gram, or about the calorie density of mayonnaise for us humans. Nevertheless, at this calorie density, compensating for the energy needed to keep warm on a -34°C day would require our Moose to consume over half of a kilogram more plant tissue than usual. To put this value into perspective, that’s about all of the willow twigs in a 20 – 65 square meter area of suitable browsing habitat (which can be patchy in some places).
Line drawing showing a sheep being represented by simple shapes for surface area estimation.
If temperatures this low persisted for a long period of time (say, weeks), and suitable browse can’t be found, they could represent a very real threat to a Moose’s survivorship – particularly if energy is also being spent on evading possible predators. As we’ll see shortly, however, the degree of this threat actually pales in comparison to that faced by other, less equipped animals. But for now, what about our Muskox?
Amazingly, the amount of energy spent on warming in Muskox at -12 and -34°C remains virtually unchanged. In fact, our estimate suggests that our imaged Muskox is probably spending little to no extra energy on warming at -34°C, relative to average energy expenditure! If you find this result surprising (as I have), you’re not alone. In 2009, Munn and others obtained very similar results when monitoring Muskox in Alaska, and like us, express their appreciation. They quote:

Surface temperatures of muskoxen were only 5°C above ambient temperatures at -30°C, a testament to the substantial insulation provided by their coat…”

Okay, appreciation might be a strong word, but the above quote is probably the closest one can get to appreciation in terse scientific language.

Caribou and Arctic Fox: Cold Weather Specialists

So what about some other Yukon residents? And what about Jake? Next, let’s have a look at few other winter specialists: the Woodland Caribou and Arctic Fox (shown in the images below).

From a quick glance at the image of our Caribou (on the left), we can already guess that thermoregulatory expenditure is this male is probably going to fall below that of the Moose. This makes sense, given that the Caribou “species complex” (that is, the aggregation of all Caribou variants) regularly ranges further north than the Moose. Moreover, Moose are thought to be relatively newer residents of the cooler Canadian north than Caribou, with Caribou arriving on the scene about 1.6 million years ago (closer to the beginning of the last ice age), and Moose about 15 thousand years ago (closer to the end of the last ice age; see Hundertmark and others, 2002, and Weckwork and others, 2012, for further reading). But just how much energy-savings do these advantages lead to for our Caribou? Surprisingly quite a bit! In fact, our calculations suggest that the imaged Caribou seems little influenced by -34°C temperatures, with expenditure toward warming reaching only one half of a cheeseburger across 4 hours of exposure. The most impressive part about this figure is that, if we extrapolate from studies of calves or adults of a closely related subspecies,  metabolic heat production in Caribou is actually lower in the winter than it is in the summer (see McEwen and Whitehead, 1970, and Nilssen and others, 1984). If you’re wondering how such low expenditure on warming could be achieved in this species, stick around for our final discussion post. There, I’ll do my best to answer how and why we see such variations in thermoregulatory expenditure across species.
And what about our Arctic Fox? Interestingly, estimating thermoregulatory expenditure in this species isn’t easy – particularly when compared with our Caribou and Muskox. As we can see from our thermographic image above, the majority of heat lost to the environment in this individual occurs at the legs. In the field of thermal biology, such sites of exacerbated heat-loss are often referred to as “thermal windows”. To help “close” these thermal windows and reduce their loss of energy in cold environments, Arctic Foxes commonly enwrap their legs with their large and well-insulated tail.
During our cold-snap, using this type of enwrapment could result in a nearly 7-fold reduction in heat-loss across a four hour period. This means that the duration of time in which our Fox remained huddled will have a substantial influence on true expenditure toward warming. Sadly, without some chilly and prolonged observations, time spent huddling isn’t easy to estimate. But, to ensure that we’re drawing a somewhat realistic estimate of prolonged heat-loss in our Fox, I’ve assumed that half of its time was spent standing, and half of its time was spent huddling. Bearing that in mind, expenditure on warming in this individual amounts to… Only one human-sized bite (or one twentieth) of a cheeseburger across our 4 hour period! If we ignore tail-wrapping behaviour, we’re looking at approximately one third of a cheeseburger. A useful tail huh?

Bison and Mule Deer: Non-specialists?

Finally, to help us contextualize thermoregulatory expenditure in our specialists, I think it will be useful to compare their performance during our cold snap against some local “non-specialists”. (Note that I quote non-specialists here because when compared to an Ocelot or Marsh Widowbird, the below species are truly quite efficient. Nevertheless, the Yukon largely represents the northern end of each species’ range). Below are two infra-red thermographic images of a few conspicuous species meeting this criteria: the Wood Bison (left) and Mule Deer (right).

The Bison species complex is certainly not naive to colder climates. Rather, current genetic studies suggest that they’ve likely been hanging around northern North America for about 150 thousand years (see Froese and others, 2017). The curious problem with this species complex, however, is that the most northerly-living, and probably the most cold-adapted species grouping (the Wood Bison), suffered considerably declines from over-hunting in the past 5 centuries. By the late 1800s, population size estimates of the Wood Bison fell dangerously to approximately 300 remaining individuals. To help revitalize the population of Wood Bison, several individuals from the more southerly-dwelling species grouping (the “Plains Bison”) were moved north to the Wood Bison range, therefore increasing genetic diversity and the size of the breeding population. Thankfully, this revitalization effort was a spectacular success. A consequence of this effort, however, may have been the loss or dilution of certain cold-adapted traits. So, despite many years in North America, we might expect that efficiency of warming in the Wood Bison probably falls slightly short of other large and sympatric mammals. As for the Mule Deer, we can certainly expect that efficiency of warming falls short of other large mammals. Unlike the Caribou, Moose, and even Bison, this species is actually more adapted to warmer climates, and likely arrived in the Yukon as recently as 50 years ago owing to a warming climate (see Boonstra and others, 2018).
For the Wood Bison, our estimates suggest that expenditure on warming likely sits around two and a half cheeseburgers in our four hour period. And the Mule Deer? Approximately one and a half cheeseburgers! Confusing? See below.
Now, for the sake of time, let’s cut to the chase. Where does the cost of warming in our cold-snap sit for our non-specialists compared to our specialists?

Comparing Specialists and Non-specialists

Overall, these values do seem to suggest higher expenditure in our non-specialists when compared with our specialists. If we wish to make meaningful conclusions from these values, however, we’ll need to make one important adjustment: scale our estimates of thermoregulatory expenditure against usual daily expenditure (as we discussed in our last last discussion). So far, we’ve quantified the absolute amount of energy each of our observed animals would need to spend to maintain a constant body temperature in the cold. But each of these animals will already be consuming vastly different quantities of stored energy. So by comparing these absolute values among animals, we’re effectively comparing bananas to shoes (or Whitehorse to Destruction Bay); they’re incomparable. To solve this problem, we’ll need to look at relative expenditure toward warming. To follow what I mean here, take a look at the diagram below.

Two bar graphs showing absolute and relative energy use of 6 species of Yukon wildlife.
In the upper plot, we can see our cheeseburger estimates depicted in plot form. From this plot, we might be led to believe that the Wood Bison wins our award of the least efficient thermoregulator of our observed animals. Congratulations Wood Bison! Additionally, this plot may also lead us to believe that expenditure toward thermoregulation in cold-snaps doesn’t vary that much across Yukon mammals. However, once we represent expenditure toward thermoregulation as a percent increase in usual energy expenditure (the lower plot above), a new and more accurate picture begins to emerge. Here, we can see that relative expenditure toward thermoregulation does vary quite significantly across Yukon animals. Furthermore, we can also see that our least efficient thermoregulator is truly the Mule Deer, not the Wood Bison. In fact, compensating for heat loss during our cold snap likely required our Wood Bison to increase it’s energy expenditure by only 24%, while a similar compensation in our Mule Deer likely required a 135% increase in energy expenditure. To be clear, that’s an over-doubling of energy expenditure in the Mule Deer during a cold snap! Notably, long-lasting cold spells of this intensity could lead to serious survival risks for this species.
But we’re missing something in our plots and discussion: where do we humans fit in?

But what about us humans?

From experience, we know that even in full winter clothing, -34°C can be very uncomfortable. And using our imagination, we can also assume that removing our winter gear in such cold weather is a dangerous endeavour. So what does this discomfort and danger mean for our energy expenditure?

To answer that question: enter Jake. In the left image above, we can see Jake kneeling beside a resident male Muskox while donning winter attire suitable for the cold-snap. Even in such winter attire, we can see that Jake is almost certainly losing more heat to the environment than the adjacent Muskox. In the right image, our Muskox has been replaced with a resident female Caribou and Jake has bravely shed his outer jacket. Need I comment on relative expenditure? But, beyond our Muskox and Caribou, how does he stack up against our other observed species?
Bar graph showing relative energy use of wildlife and humans in Yukon.
Thought the Mule Deer was inefficient? As I mentioned before, evolution can be a wonderful process. Clearly, generations of outdoor living can lead to some impressive capacities to tolerate extreme weather. In my next and last post, we’ll discuss just how such capacities are achieved, and what they mean for species persistence in a rapidly changing world. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few pieces of information to think about:

  1. Although eating plenty of cheeseburgers might improve one’s comfort at -34°C, doing so wont keep hypothermia at bay if one remains unclothed. Rather, the extent to which any animal can elevate it’s metabolic rate is limited, regardless of how much food they eat. In humans, that limit seems to fall fairly close to the increase we might have seen in Jake if he were able to maintain a constant body temperature without his jacket. However, that limit appears only to be reached in extreme and long-lasting sporting competitions, such as the Tour de France.
  2. Adaptations to persist in cold have undoubtedly been helpful for surviving winters in the Yukon, but there is a second side to this coin: a loss of tolerance to warm weather and a bigger battle to face when coping with climate change.

Our Muskox and Arctic Fox might have an interesting future ahead of them.

Joshua Robertson

Joshua Robertson

Behavioural and Physiological Ecologist

Joshua is a behavioural and physiological ecologist currently living on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. During his PhD at Trent University, Joshua sought to understand how small birds can cope with the high costs of body temperature regulation when challenged with other environmental stressors (such as human and predator exposure). He is currently extending the research to better understand energy management strategies in warm-blood animals.

Explore by Category

Explore by Author

[molongui_author_list output=select with_posts=yes]

Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

This article was made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Awareness Fund. Engage and educate yourself in this blog series, about Yukon Biodiversity.

15 minute read –

Once upon a time in the distant year of 2015, a Canadian wildlife photographer, Don Gutoski won Wildlife Photograph of the Year with a haunting snapshot of a red fox scarfing down the body of an arctic fox it had just killed. This grisly image titled “The Tale of Two Foxes” was heralded as a stark depiction of climate change in the north where warmer climates lead to red foxes encroaching on the territory of arctic foxes. While climate change is both a real and palpable threat to arctic ecosystems, the reasons behind the expansion of red fox ranges into the arctic and their subsequent relationship with their tiny northern counterparts isn’t that straightforward. When is it ever, am I right? Life is complicated!

Credit: Don Gutoski’s photo titled “A Tale of Two Foxes” won Britain’s Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015. It also sparked some assumptions and conversations about climate change and species competition in the changing Arctic. 

First off, it’s unfair to treat red foxes as an invasive pest freshly arrived on the arctic tundra. Historical fur harvest records from trading outposts in northern Canada show the presence of red foxes in the arctic starting in the early 20th century. In other words, they aren’t new to the neighbourhood. One of the popular hypotheses out there attributes the red fox’s northward expansion to the warmer temperatures caused by climate change. Milder winters definitely help red fox survival in their arctic home as they are nowhere near as well insulated as arctic foxes. But this balmy weather (balmy being a relative term, the arctic is still chilly as heck) is not the only factor behind their northern migration and it’s probably not even the main driving force; people are.

A study that compared the movement of red foxes with historical climate data and the development of sedentary settlements in the Canadian arctic found that it was the settlements, not the temperature, that was most closely linked to fox migration. Why? Well, it’s probably because we’re a great food source. If you live in Whitehorse, you do not need me to tell you that red foxes thrive around human settlements. It’s a fox paradise with all the garbage and unattended dog food that they can eat and a wondrous array of leather goods to steal. The fox that sleeps under my dryer vent probably feels like it has a very plush life. Quick question: It once left a decapitated grouse on my back porch; does that count as paying rent??

In a place like the arctic where resources are scarce, human settlements and by extension, human garbage (or “anthropogenic waste subsidies” if you want to impress your friends) can provide a relatively bountiful food source for red foxes. This isn’t really a good thing though. While both red and arctic foxes like to yummy down on some trash, human-created food sources favour the survival of red foxes over arctic foxes. This in turn could lead to diminished arctic fox populations in the future.

Red foxes are bigger and heavier than arctic foxes so when it comes to direct competition between the two, red foxes are more likely to be the victor. We already have grim photographic evidence of that exact scenario. Both types of foxes also have very similar diets, similar subsistence strategies (scavenging and food caching), and both of their reproductive success depends on having a den to shelter their pups. Leading very similar lifestyles put these two fox species in direct competition for resources. If this is the case, why haven’t red foxes wiped arctic foxes off the map? It’s probably because the relative survival of these two species isn’t contingent on a fox vs. fox death match. Sorry to disappoint. 

If I’m being completely candid with you, dear reader, when I was initially handed this topic, I was kind of hoping to write a shocking and grisly article about fox-on-fox violence. The carnage! The tragedy! Oh the terrible realities of nature! Not because I want bad things to happen to tiny foxes (I don’t), but because I am an absolute ghoul of a human being and that kind of content makes for a gripping article. Either way, this is not the case and I am legitimately relieved to know the arctic tundra isn’t strewn with fuzzy white bodies. Yes, red foxes do prey on arctic foxes but they are by no means out there slaughtering their smaller arctic counterparts into extinction. I mean red foxes also eat other red foxes, it’s the nature of well… Nature.

A group of researchers conducted a forty-year study of fox dens on Herschel Island and the Yukon’s coastal mainland to investigate the relative abundance of red and arctic foxes in the area. In those four decades, both of these fox populations remained relatively unchanged. We (and by “we” I really mean the researchers and biologists who specialize in this kind thing and not myself, a humble turnip and writer) don’t entirely understand all the factors that keep the balance between these two residents of the Yukon arctic. It’s a very complicated relationship and there’s a lot to unravel; here is what we know/can infer from previous studies.

Two major characteristics of the Yukon arctic that limit red fox expansion and increase the arctic fox’s competitive edge are a) limited food resources and b) the cold. As I mentioned before, red foxes are bigger and heavier which helps them bully arctic foxes away from food sources and denning sites but it also means they need to eat more. Both red and arctic foxes are opportunistic carnivores that feed on small to medium sized animals and the carcasses left behind by larger predators. While the arctic fox’s diet is largely reliant on lemmings, the red fox’s diet is more generalized which can help offset their greater need for food. But does it offset it enough? Nope.

During the winter, when food availability is at its lowest, red foxes are burning through a lot more energy than arctic foxes to keep warm. Obviously, they can survive the bitter chill of arctic winters as they’ve been up there for about a century. Red foxes can survive the winter, sure, but arctic foxes were designed for it. Not only do they need less food than red foxes, but they can drop their basal metabolic rate during the winter to conserve more energy and thus need even less food! Arctic foxes also have an incredibly dense winter coat so they need less energy to stay warm and they have a lighter foot-load (meaning they sink down less when they’re scooting around in the snow) so they burn less energy in transit. Arctic foxes are just super energy efficient, folks, I don’t know what to tell ya! While the red fox’s food and energy needs decrease their survival rates in the winter, arctic foxes can coast through it with a lemming and a box of tic tacs. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but you get the picture.

Their dietary requirements can also restrict red foxes spatially. We can see a good example of this if we look at the denning strategies of red and arctic foxes. Denning isn’t easy in the arctic: digging a burrow has a high energy cost and suitable denning sites are limited by the climate, soil type, and that ever-present permafrost. Here’s the real kicker, ideal denning areas and food rich areas don’t occur in the same place! Prime denning real estate is a high, dry area like a ridge, mound, or bank with coarse sediment, lots of sun exposure (i.e.: less frozen dirt to dig through) and low snow accumulation. This setup provides foxes and their pups with protection from the elements, predators and they’re less likely to get snowed in.

Food rich areas, on the other hand, are low, wet places like stream valleys where a higher yield of plant life results in a higher number of delicious rodents. Essentially the complete opposite of the ideal denning area. Great. Foxes then have to make a choice: choose a den with more protection from predators and the weather or choose a den closer to your food? Clearly, the red foxes with their greater need to feed are going to pick the den that’s closer to the buffet. Red foxes often move into dens dug by arctic foxes so they’ll effectively push arctic foxes out of these areas. However, arctic foxes have more flexibility when it comes to denning since they have lower food requirements. When red foxes and arctic foxes are occupying the same area, arctic foxes will prioritise dens with great predator protection and lower food density. When red foxes aren’t around, arctic foxes will favour dens closer to food rich zones instead.

With all this considered, the effects of climate change should have increased the red foxes dominance of the tundra. Warmer winters decrease the arctic fox’s advantage over red foxes and warmer weather increases the amount of plant growth and, in turn, the amount of rodent-based food sources. However, this hasn’t happened. Why? Researchers believe that the answer to that also lies in climate change and the food-related limitations of the red fox. Seal carcasses left behind by polar bears are a really important food source for foxes in the arctic. The warmer temperatures caused by climate change are reducing the ice sheets, increasing the ice-free season, and changing the patterns of seasonal ice flow. All of this is putting stress on polar bear populations and stressed polar bears likely lead to fewer seal kills and thus fewer seal carcasses. Climate change giveth, climate change taketh away, I guess.

It’s also been noted in Sweden and Norway that global warming is actually dampening rodent reproduction rather than increasing it. The resulting drop in the rodent population is having a negative impact on the arctic fox populations in these regions. If the same is true in the Yukon, it would have an even larger negative effect on red foxes due to their greater resource needs. Unfortunately, we’re lacking long term data on rodent populations in the Yukon so we don’t know if this is the case or not.

This complicated web of physical needs, adaptations, and environmental factors have led to this not entirely understood balance between two fox species and who knows which ways the scale will tip in the future. There is one thing I can tell you for sure though: previous studies have shown that an effective way to increase or reduce red fox populations is the addition or removal of human-related waste. This isn’t so much an issue in the mostly-vacant Yukon arctic but in other arctic regions with mining or oil drilling operations, it poses a potential problem. Red foxes aren’t a horrible invasive species laying waste to adorable arctic foxes but a garbage-induced boom in red fox population could negatively impact their little arctic counterparts. So clean up your garbage, don’t feed foxes, and rest a bit easier knowing that while climate change is messing up the arctic, at least it’s not inducing a fox war up on the tundra. It’s really more of a muted territorial scuffle.

Joelle Ingram

Joelle Ingram

Human of Many Talents

Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.


Explore by Category

Explore by Author

[molongui_author_list output=select with_posts=yes]

Bear Poo and You: learning about Yukon Bears with the OURS research project

Bear Poo and You: learning about Yukon Bears with the OURS research project

Bear Poo and You: learning about Yukon Bears with the OURS research project

This article was made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Awareness Fund. Engage and educate yourself in this 10-part blog series, about Yukon Biodiversity.
Banner Photo:  Grizzly bear scat.  iNaturalist OURS page Photo Credit Lucile Fressigné
15 minute read –
If you, like me, grew up in the Yukon, bear awareness training has been part of your life since you were a wee child. Some combination of videos and booklets have let you know that yes, bears sure are out there and this is what you should do in response to a variety of bear encounters. But here’s the thing, just how aware of bears are you really? The Yukon is renowned for its bears but there are actually some gaps in our bear knowledge, particularly when it comes to just how many bears are actually out there! Population size is important for studying everything from the spatial distribution to the health of a species, but there hasn’t been a bear survey in the Yukon since the 1980s. Unless the Yukon bears are both immortal and not having babies, that information is a touch outdated.

Lucile Fressigné is leading an on-going study that seeks to fill in this gap in bear population knowledge. Starting in 2020, she started a community-based project to survey the Yukon’s bear populations in a creative way that also doesn’t bother the local bears: by collecting their scat! That’s right, Operation Ursus Research using Scat (OURS) is aimed at updating and providing a scientifically reliable estimate of the population size of Yukon bear species using a non-invasive DNA-based method that relies on scat samples. Last year, the study focused on collecting samples in the Mount Lorne, Marsh Lake, Tagish, and Fish Lake areas of the territory. Fressigné offers Yukon residents the opportunity to be part of this project and help build this sample collection by offering free collection kits that can be dropped off at community centres in the study areas. Yes, you too can take part in bear science!

OURS aims to get an estimate on both grizzly (Ursus arctos) and black bear (Ursus americanus) populations. These bears tend to be especially difficult to inventory and monitor as a low number of bears will occur over a large home range and they tend to be avoidant by nature. Grizzlies are the largest of the two and are very distinctive with their dished face profile and defined shoulder hump. They are often referred to as “brown bears” but their colours can range from white to almost black. They most commonly have “grizzled fur”: a deep brown with lighter ends. Apparently, no one told them that frosted tips went out of style in the early 2000s.

Grizzly Bear iNaturalist Photo Credit L to R:  Cameron Eckert, Bdobrowo, and OURS Facebook page.

In 2018, grizzlies in western Canada were designated as a species of special concern. This means that they are a species that does not meet the criteria of an endangered or threatened species but is particularly vulnerable, and could easily become endangered, threatened, or extirpated. This rapid loss of population could happen from a variety of factors such as restricted distribution, low or declining numbers, and/or specialized habitat needs or limits. One of the many benefits of having a population estimation for grizzly bears is that it can help provide a basis for a proactive conservation strategy.
Black bears, as the name would suggest, are most often black but can also be blonde, grey, cinnamon, and brown (in which case, the name is very misleading). They have a straight face profile and lack the shoulder hump present in grizzlies. They also lack the species of special concern status but this doesn’t necessarily mean there are more black bears in the Yukon because, like grizzlies, the last time there was a black bear population estimate was in the 90s. Without an updated population estimate, we really don’t know if we should be concerned about them as well.

Black Bear iNaturalist Photo Credit L to R: Cameron EckertYukonAnnie, John Meikle

At first blush, scat analysis might not seem like the most appealing method for studying bear populations but there are a lot of advantages to this method. First of all, it’s incredibly non-invasive when compared with methods like radio collaring. In order to get a collar on a bear, they have to be tranquilized which can result in the injury or even death of the bear (bummer!). The injection site can get infected, the radio collar can get snagged, and there’s a lag between when the dart hits the bear and when the tranquiliser takes effect. During this lag time, bears can run out into a body of water where they can’t be recovered because ursine lifeguards are not a thing.

Hair snags are another non-invasive method for population estimations. This is the most common method of population analysis and it’s done by placing a tantalizing lure near a string of barbed wire. When an animal comes for the lure, they leave a cheeky tuft of hair behind. However, scat analysis doesn’t need a lure/barbed wire setup, you can find it everywhere bears dwell, and it is very easy to identify whereas hair tufts can be tricky to spot. Odds are, if you spend some time in the woods, you’ve come across them before. And believe it or not, there is a ton of information to be gained from analysing bear body waste!

Bear Scat.  iNaturalist Photo Credit L to R:  Grizzlyann, Gerald Haase, Lucile-OURS.

Because scat is found wherever the bear decided to leave it behind, it tells you where and generally when the bear has been so it’s very useful for identifying bear habitats. The DNA analysis technique used on these scat samples is called Genotyping in Thousands by Sequencing (GT-seq). This method can extract information regarding the species, sex, and individual identity of the bear. Knowing this poop-extracted bear information can help scientists track the movement and migration of individual bears as well as trends in bear parentage! Scat also contains cortisol (the stress hormone) which can be used to monitor the relative stress levels of the local bear populations. This can be really important for bear conservation because it can tell us whether bears in certain areas are experiencing more stress than others (are bears living by highways more stressed than those that don’t, for example).

We are generally aware of what bears are eating but scat analysis can give us specific statistics regarding how often and how much bears are consuming of different foods. It also helps chart changes in diet. If one food is present one year and absent the next, this might indicate environmental changes that made this food source inaccessible. OURS can also see how bears are affecting their food sources in turn. As part of this project, Fressigné is partnered with the Kwanlin Dün First Nation who are interested in how or if bear predation is affecting the declining moose population in the Fish Lake area.

The goal of the first season of research was to test the community-based sampling method and generally gauge the public’s interest in the project. It was an opportunity to implement new genetic technology on the collected samples and to test whether the scat collection methodology would yield enough useable DNA. It also aimed to identify the presence and distribution of bears in the sampling areas. Moving into the second season of sampling, OURS is going to adopt a more rigorous sampling method by hiring students to run survey transects in the study area and by partnering with more First Nations and groups that are involved in traveling and exploring through the Yukon wilderness. This includes hunters and trappers, tourism companies, mining companies, summer camps, schools, and very lost tourists. Just kidding on the last one, being a tourist is both dangerous and illegal at the moment.

The OURS project is primarily about providing a population estimate but it’s more than just a bear abacus. Studying the genetic markers in bear scat reveals information about the genetic diversity in bear populations. This work also helps emphasise how important it is to maintain this diversity in order to keep these vulnerable apex species healthy and stable. The groovy analysis from these scat samples will also provide tons of info about bear stress levels, parentage, and the trends and impacts of bear predation. Who knew poo could be so educational?

Bear Scat.  iNaturalist Photo Credit: 1st Alisonp, 2nd and 3rd Grizzlyann

The project is important for future bear conservation efforts and not just because it gives us an approximate bear count. This study can be used to monitor the impact of climate change on bear behavior and population trends. Continued bear scat surveys can also reveal critical/preferential habitats for bears, and lead to the restoration of these habitats or the creation of protected areas that would minimize human/bear conflicts. Which is great because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to fight a bear. But in all seriousness, these types of conflicts tend to end badly for the bears so it’s best if they can be mitigated or avoided entirely.

As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to the non-invasive, cost effective, kind of smelly, and highly informative research method of scat sampling. This method will hopefully allow the OURS project to collate an estimate of our Yukon bear populations and improve the scope of our bear-related knowledge. If you want to learn more about the project, check out the OURS Facebook and iNaturalist page and consider, come this spring, being part of the bear bowel movement collection crew!

OURS Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OURS.lf
OURS iNaturalist: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/operation-ursus-research-using-scat

Joelle Ingram

Joelle Ingram

Human of Many Talents

Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.


Explore by Category

Explore by Author

[molongui_author_list output=select with_posts=yes]