Misunderstood Moose

Misunderstood Moose

Misunderstood Moose

5 min read –

You have most likely heard the phrase “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, implying that captivating stories can be hidden behind bland book covers. Similarly, at one time or another many of us have been judged or have judged others based on their outward appearance. Judging others based on their appearance can lead to us underestimating other people’s abilities. Have you ever been underestimated? How did it feel? Due to their funny-looking, long snouts, and gangly, plodding bodies, moose are often underestimated. People tend to view moose as gentle, slow-moving animals, and often don’t associate moose with characteristics such as agile and fierce. Cartoons1Like Bullwinkle the Moose can perpetuate this impression by displaying moose as slow, friendly Canadians. But don’t be deceived by this common misperception. Though moose may look unassuming, they are capable of performing impressive athletic feats in order to find food and avoid predators.

Despite their appearance, moose can easily propel themselves through water in order to find food. While otters, beavers, and other mammals that are known for their swimming ability have lean bodies and webbed feet which allow them to easily glide through the water, moose are heavy-set and have hoofed feet. Despite their size and hooved feet, moose have the advantage of being tall, and their long legs help propel their large bodies through the water. Moose also have hollow hairs, which help them stay buoyant while swimming.2National Park Service With these advantages, moose can swim as fast as 9.5 km per hour. By comparison, most humans only swim at the pace of 3 km per hour. Moose’s ability to swim quickly allows them to travel in search of food while reducing stress on their joints. Water also helps protect moose from predators because it is more difficult for predators to sneak up on them when they are in the water.3Moose Facts 

Moose swimming across Lake Laberge.  Photo credit D. Caldwell.

Photo Credit Johanna Marglowski

Moose also have adaptations that allow them to dive underwater to eat nutrient rich aquatic plants.4National Geographic To prevent water from rushing up their noses, moose have flaps that close in their nostrils. These flaps allow them to hold their breath underwater for up to 50 seconds5Holding breath Ecology and Management of the North American Moose and help them to dive up to 6 m (20 ft) underneath the water surface!6Hinterland Who’s Who After a winter of sparse food resources, aquatic plants provide essential energy to both pregnant cows (female moose), and to bulls (male moose) as they regrow their antlers.

In addition to swimming, moose are also capable of running at high speeds. Being the tallest member of the deer family, a moose can stand around 6 feet tall at the shoulder, which is as tall as some professional basketball players.7National Geographic Even though moose might be too gangly to make great basketball players, their height and long legs allow them to run very fast. A moose calf can outrun the average human after only 5 days of life,8National Geographic while an adult moose can charge at a pace of 56 km per hour, and maintain a pace of 32 km per hour over longer periods. For perspective, during his world record 100 metre dash Usain Bolt ran at an average pace of 44 km per hour. However, moose do not run fast to set world records, their speed provides them protection by enabling them to run away from wolves and other quick-moving predators.

Furthermore, despite the perception of being friendly, moose are actually effective fighters. Though they sometimes use their speed to outrun predators, an experienced and healthy moose is capable of defending itself against wolves by standing its ground and fighting.9Wolves of the Yukon by Bob Hayes Moose will protect their sides by standing next to trees and high shrubs, and then use their powerful legs to stomp or kick attacking wolves, hitting them with their deadly hooves. A powerful strike from a moose’s sharp hooves can result in injury to or even kill a wolf. 

Even young moose are large animals.  The photos show 2 moose bulls; on the left a young 1 year old and on the right a more mature bull of many years of age.

So, are moose really the plodding, polite animals that cartoons depict them as? Have you ever underestimated moose based on their goofy-looking appearance? As we have seen, instead of being slow, and plodding, moose are impressive athletes. Moose are capable of swimming through and under water, which allows them to more easily travel in search of food and access the nutrients they need during pregnancy and to grow antlers. Moose are also capable of running at high speeds and of fighting off other animals, which helps them survive attacks from wolves and other predators. Each of these athletic capabilities are important survival mechanisms that help moose thrive in the wild.

Tasha Mazurkewich

Tasha Mazurkewich

Wildlife Interpreter

Tasha is a self-proclaimed animal enthusiast and adventurer. Originally from British Columbia, she enjoys skiing, hiking, and all things outdoors. She is happiest when she is climbing a mountain with her pup. Having recently moved up north, she has enjoyed learning about Yukon’s wildlife and landscape and is excited to share the new knowledge she has learned with visitors to the wildlife preserve

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Fall In to Autumn

Fall In to Autumn

Fall In to Autumn

5 minute read – 
Autumn is a season of change! It’s the bridge which helps us transition from summer towards winter. What a beautiful bridge it is, with leaves blazing colour in vibrant hues of red, orange and yellow. Fireweed has flowered and the leaves are crimson. Against this backdrop the first snows fall on the mountaintops.

Birds begin their migration back to their southern overwintering grounds, after a summer spent mating, nesting, rearing young, and eating well. Before we see the V’s flying overhead, we often hear them honking and calling to each other.

In the world of ungulates, it is the time of the rut. Antlered animals have finished growing this season’s antlers; their velvet has sloughed off and now they sport their hardened, ready-to-duel finery. We can see and hear as the males clash, challenging each other for the right to breed the females. Elk stags bugle, bull moose softly grunt – calling to interested females in the area and warning off competing males.

Watson, in the foreground, has shed the velvet on his first year’s full antler growth.

Those with horns are also clashing. This looks less like a duel and more like a train crash. Thinhorn Mountain Sheep rams, both Stone and Dall subspecies, run at each other and smash heavy horns together – the echo of this collision ricochets like a rifle shot. Muskox bulls have been rumbling since early August, chasing each other, establishing dominance and finally banging horns as they work to impress the females for breeding rights.
We begin to notice a lack of Arctic Ground Squirrel activity. We no longer hear the constant shrill warnings as nearby predators hunt; where are these industrious rodents? Hibernation comes early – females are already underground for the long winter ahead, and the last of the males aboveground continue to harvest and stockpile their midden, into early October. Predators such as Red Foxes can be seen traveling from one burrow-entrance to another…..looking for a disappearing meal of ground squirrel which used to be in abundance. Soon they’ll be gone completely, hibernating through the winter, under a thick layer of blanketing snow – but not just yet.

Autumn means hibernation is coming.  We’ve noticed a lessening of Arctic Ground Squirrel activity at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

Humans are adding clothing layers, finding sweaters, mitts and toques in storage. We need these warm additions on the crisp, cold autumn mornings. Afternoon sunshine heats up; we turn our faces to the sun and shed those layers – it’s not winter yet! So too are the animals growing coats of winter fur, wool and hair. Mountain goats have spent all summer shedding last winter’s wool; almost immediately it’s time to grow in this winter’s layer of hair. Arctic Foxes are beginning to add some white to their brown and grey camouflage. They not only change colour with their winter fur, they also add seeming bulk. All those layers of white fluffy fur help them stay warm, maintain body core temperature and thrive in the harsh winter environment of the Far North.
Enjoying this short season is highly recommended – there’s nothing as seasonally relevant or celebratory as jumping into a pile of autumnal leaves. Cranberries are ripening, harvesting continues. Underneath the beauty of the changing season, there is a sense of urgency. Whether we are human or animal, we know winter is coming, and while it’s not here yet, time and opportunity are limited to eat, put enough weight on, or store food to survive the coming months.

Summer is over, the cycle continues. Autumn is the clear signal to prepare for what’s ahead. Fall in to Autumn; experience the sights and sounds with enjoyment, wherever you are.

Julie Kerr

Julie Kerr

Visitor Services Coordinator

Julie is a Registered Veterinary Technologist, living and working in Whitehorse since 2012. She joined the team in May 2018. She is passionate about wildlife, nature and living in a conscious manner with both. Her free time is spent outdoors observing wild animals and ecosystems; her connection to the natural world around her brings great joy – joy she loves to share with anyone interested. Honestly? Work and life blend rather seamlessly.

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Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

11 min read –
The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, concluding with mountain slopes.

Mountain goats on their cliff habitat at Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Looking around the local landscape we easily see the topographic differences near to us and in the distance. These elevational changes of the geography influence how animals move, reproduce and make a living. Some have evolved physical adaptations providing them with advantages to live in different habitats compared to other species.

Some creatures have evolved to live on the rock faces of mountainsides, while others are better equipped to live in the valleys often near rivers and other water bodies. Some other species can live easily on all land types, like the Caribou that often travel great distances over all types of terrain along their migration paths.

 Caribou often travel great distances over all types of terrain along their migration paths.

The land all around us is in a continual state of change as it has been since time began. The Preserve is located within the Takhini River Valley. The river is south of us, only a few hundred meters away. Glaciers filled this valley up until about thirteen thousand years ago. While they were here, the glaciers altered the landform in some very dramatic ways as they bulldozed great areas of soil and rock, gravel and forested areas resulting in what we can see today. Look at the mountain tops across the valley and you’ll see the smooth rounded tops where the glaciers ground them down; and the other mountains with jagged and pointed tops indicating where the glaciers did not have a similar impact because they did not grow that high. However erosion is still at work as the influences of wind, rain, ice and snow continue to alter the landscape.

This type of landform provides a spectrum of variables that influence the safety, nourishment, and rearing of offspring that many species have adapted to over thousands of their generations.

Going back millions of years, many species evolved due to the influences of what they prefer to eat and where that food source could be easily found throughout the year. For example, beavers depend on wooded vegetation and while trees grow on mountain slopes, beavers had greater opportunity and benefit to feed on the vegetation that grows next to waterways, so beavers evolved to be more adept at swimming and thriving in an aquatic environment that also sustains certain species of trees that beavers adapted to thrive on.

Mountain Goats and Sheep are the megafauna species featured in the rocky habitats here on the Preserve, They evolved specialized hooves and muscle groups to allow them to move quickly, and safely, on the various rock types found on these slopes.

Of course there are numerous other species present here as well and while they have not evolved noticeable physical adaptations to live on the rocks, they have learned how best to live in this habitat and find the resources required to raise a family and make a living. Our ever-roaming foxes are often seen walking among the goats on the rock faces in their never-ending search for food. Many birds will nest on rocky crags and outcroppings as the precarious nature of these do provide some level of protection against predators like the fox. Eagles, hawks and owls often select a high perch on the rocks as they scan the area looking for their next meal. They often build nests in the protected areas in a crack high up a rock face to take advantage of these lookout positions.

Golden eagle nest on Lake Lebarge’s eastern shores early 2000’s.  Photo D. Caldwell

Rodents also make their homes within the jumbles of rocks hoping they have chosen a safe place to raise a family. Members of the weasel family, including Pine Martin, mink, weasels and even the cunning Wolverine will seek a suitable place to den among the rock slides as well as the forested areas nearby. Bears of course also seek out suitable places in the rocks to den and hibernate over winter.There are no bears denning on the Preserve at this time that we are aware of.

Also not present on the Preserve, are other creatures like Marmots and Pikas that typically make their homes high up in the rocks and mountains of the Yukon, Some species seem to be very widespread and can be found in a variety of Yukon habitat types. While some others are localised to specific geographic locations or elevations where they have the greatest opportunity for success. The ubiquitous Arctic Ground Squirrel also favours mountain sides to make a home.

Keep in mind that numerous natural influences like wildfires, landslides, avalanches and similar disruptions may alter the living conditions for a number of animals that will need to go in search of a new home to raise a family. The same may happen when a grizzly bear selects a den near a favoured grazing area of sheep or goats. To remain safe, the sheep will seek out a new grazing area well away from predators and other dangers.

Thinhorn Sheep rams enjoy sunshine in their predator-free grazing grounds at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.  In the background we see the sheep-accessible cliffs within their habitat.

Rocky habitats are not without their dangers. During the winter season ice will form in small cracks and crevices within the rocks, as the ice becomes colder and swells it further fractures the rock sometimes making it dangerous in that it may break away completely and fall further down the slope.

Gravel screes are the deposits of smaller rocks, pebbles and dirt that have fallen from above and form a skirt of loose materials at the base of a rock face. These can be difficult for mammals to walk on quietly and safely and as such provide another level of security for the creatures that dwell on the mountainsides. Flash floods caused by voluminous rainfall and spring snowmelt can also be dangerous for the creatures that live on the rocks.

Rocky habitats are not without their dangers, which change based on the season.  Here, Thinhorn Mountain Sheep walk through deep snow along the cliff edge at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

Because rocks warm in the sun and hold that warmth after the sun sets, some rock faces are preferred by early arriving bird species, like raptors, that will nest there to get started on raising the offspring that may hatch while snow still lies on the ground. Raptor parents teach the offspring how and where to hunt after they have learned to fly. They have lots to do within a short seasonal weather pattern, so nesting in the warmth of the rock faces provides them with an advantage to raising a healthy next generation.

Like all other habitats on the Preserve, winter brings some profound changes to mountain slopes the animals must literally take in stride. The goats and sheep cannot run and frolic on the snow covered rock faces as they do in the ice-free season. They pay closer attention to where they travel and may use alternate trail systems during these times to prevent slips and falls. They still make it look much easier than it is and they sometimes look quite smug as they look down at us staring up at them from the road.

The spring thaw also introduces new dangers as the warming rocks may cause the ice to melt from beneath, creating loose patches that can break away when a foot is placed on them. Meltwater cascading down the slope is another seasonal hazard the creatures are well conditioned to avoid. Staying warm and dry is its own reward when the chill winds blow high up on the rocks.

As the ice and snow melt away and the winter white gives way to the browns and greens of spring and the migratory populations return for another summer in the Yukon, the many animals species return to raise their families and prepare them for a life that continues to transform and evolve due to climate change and the other forces of nature like earthquakes, wildfires, floods and the influences of mankind.

It may appear that some animal species are well established and very set in their ways, however they are evolving each day to maximize new opportunities provided by an ever-changing planet and the relationships between their habitats and their ability to get what they need to survive. We humans may not notice these changes right away as they can be quite subtle and appear meaningless to us. An example of this is the recent addition of crows and hummingbirds to the Yukon. They are expanding their summer ranges north as the climate warms and they can find enough nectar producing flowers to sustain them as they explore new habitats in the north. The flowering plants they depend on are also moving further north and their presence here will result in other changes that may take us some time to see and understand as they move into habitats presently occupied by the traditional species we normally focus on. Change is all around us, but it can be difficult to see clearly or understand the scope of these changes.

So take the time to look beyond the megafauna and other species we consider to be normal, you may see something astounding. Just ask Whitehorse bird enthusiast Cameron Eckert who found and photographed an adult female Calliope Hummingbird, on Herschel Island in June of 2017, 1,800 km north of its traditional breeding range.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

13 minute read – 

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, continuing with wetlands.

Wetlands are a vital part of Earth’s ecosystems and contribute a number of essential benefits for the land and all the flora and fauna that live on it. At the most basic level, wetlands act as a filtering system to produce clean healthy water for creatures and plants to consume. Wetlands are also the preferred habitat for a wide variety of creatures that range from the smallest of insects to frogs and other amphibians all the way up to include North America’s largest deer species, the Moose, which seasonally depend on the aquatic plants that grow in wetlands for a large part of their diet.

Many other species have evolved to live in wetlands for the numerous benefits they provide in terms of maintaining a reliable food source, protection against predators and wildfires. Wetlands act as a buffer between larger bodies of water and dry land, these places are often called interface zones. These areas also act to prevent flooding of the land as they buffer rising lake and river water levels and reduce dramatic erosion and physical impacts to other habitats.

Again, look beyond our majestic megafauna moose, there’s so much diversity to see in the wetland habitat. Where there’s water, there’s usually waterfowl of many types, including Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Common Loons and a wide assortment of ducks who may visit with us for a few days to rest and re-energize during their migrations to and from their summer ranges each year. Some bird pairs may decide to remain and raise a family at the Preserve, so ducklings and goslings paddling behind mom is a common sight over the summer.

You also will see the many barn and tree swallows gathering on the wire fence taking a break before returning to their stunt flying in pursuit of flying insects. Numerous warbler and finch species and our non-migratory chickadees, red polls and sparrows are but a few you’ll have a chance to observe.  Blue birds fly over both the grassland and marsh habitats in search of food, as do small hawks like the Sharp Shinned, Sparrow Hawks, Harriers, and an occasional Screech Owl. Of course there are the varieties of gulls that spend the summer season inland and do a terrific job of keeping edible waste items in check.

The wetlands are abundant with insects and rodents making these areas diversely populated. Bald eagles often hunt ducks on the marsh and when they do, things happen very fast. The eagle will silently glide in over the fence and drop down to about a meter above the water using the air currents to avoid flapping wings and alarming any ducks in view. A successful capture is frequently announced by the rest of the duck flock quacking and taking to the air in a loud blusterous effort. Foxes and lynx also hunt the bird population in the marsh. They are often seen trotting quickly among the long grasses searching for duck nests from which they may steal an egg or hatchling to take back to hungry young kits waiting in their den. While they don’t particularly enjoy it, lynx can be accomplished swimmers and are sometimes found in the water in pursuit of ducks.

Keep a keen eye out in the marsh for muskrats that are infrequently observed swimming or grooming on a frost heave. There are no known beavers in the Preserve marsh, if you do see a large swimming creature it is probably a muskrat.

The marsh, and waters draining from it, are home to tadpoles, which become frogs, who also consume their fair share of a wide variety of insects. Examples include: water boatmen, beetles, mayflies, scuds (a small shrimp-like bug), caddis flies, blood worms, leeches and the most voluminous populace of them all – mosquitos. These insects are the beginning of the food chain which supports the many thousands of creatures in existence today, and some have been around for a very, very long time.

One of the Preserve’s apex insects is perhaps the most vicious predator on the property: The Dragonfly. These remarkable insects reached their evolutionary peak before the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and since that time they have changed very little because they have attained top status in their portion of the insect world and dominate. However, some believe the dragonfly’s life cycle is unbalanced and are being punished for something.

You see, dragonflies start their lives hatching from eggs underwater to begin their larval stage, when they are known as nymphs or naiads, During this part of their lives in the mud under the water they are voracious hunters and will attack other insects many times larger than themselves, they even hunt tadpoles and small fish. They eat all they can catch and grow larger and stronger. Here’s the part thought to be unfair.

Photo of dragonfly taken during the 2020 Yukon Biodiversity Bioblitz, held at Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Dragonflies live underwater as these top predators for up to three years for some species. Then, one warm sunny day they climb up a stalk of grass out of the water and begin a remarkable transformation from a ferocious water bug, into an adult to become one of the most accomplished fliers on this earth, The sad part perceived as punishment is that the adult dragonfly only lives for about three days before it mates and perishes according to Nature’s plan. Three years underwater living and fighting in the mud and only three days as an accomplished and dazzling flier, then, it’s life cycle completes, it perishes, it’s all done – it does seem unfair.

The winter season brings profound change to the marsh. Many of the summer residents have either migrated south or have found warm shelter for the winter months. Of course the water freezes creating a barrier between those that live under the surface and those that live above. Insects continue to grow, eat and thrive under the water, now much darker due to ice and snow blanketing the surface, blocking most of the sunlight. In winter moose, both in the wild and in the wetlands habitat at the Preserve, can no longer access the aquatic vegetation they enjoy so much and turn to other vegetation to support them. Alas, winter also impacts the vegetation that grows above the water and since moose are also very efficient browsers, they adapt in winter by browsing more of the plant than the tender bits at the ends of the branches they consume in the summer. Look at the bushes near the fence line in the moose habitat to see how well cropped they become over the winter season.

No water due to freezing temperatures means no waterfowl as they all migrated south before the cold weather arrived. This is also true of the many songbirds and migratory raptors who raised families throughout spring and summer. Mice and some other rodents adapt to the seasonal change similar to the rodents in the grasslands – they create tunnels to travel in, stockpile food in middens and raise their families. Just because it is winter does not mean they stop breeding and producing offspring.

The predator species that depend on the mice and voles in the marsh change their hunting strategies as well when the land is frozen with a layer of snow above. Foxes are often seen leaping into the air to pounce on their lunch the same as they do in the grass pastures. The wild foxes on the Preserve move from habitat to habitat many times a day as they patrol in search of food, which is much harder to find and capture during the winter season. Winter is obviously a greater challenge as ground squirrels are hibernating, small birds have moved away and snow cover impedes easy mouse hunting.

Moose will avoid the frozen ice of the marsh during freeze up and the spring melt so that they do not break through and become stuck in the mud just a short distance below this thinner ice, which can become quite sharp and injure their legs as they struggle to climb out. Therefore, they stay closer to the fence, and terra firma, for easy and safe walking.

The return of the spring sun, the resulting longer, warmer days and the melting of the ice and snow announce a new season for all the creatures that make a living in the wetlands. The changes occur quickly as creatures work hard to make the most of the warmer weather, as they have a lot to do in a short period of time. Some years there are only about 140 ice-free days between spring thaw and winter freeze up. Thankfully the days are longer allowing for more to be done beneath the Midnight Sun.

If they don’t already have one or if they are just reaching reproductive maturity, many animals will need to find a mate; also they must find or build a place to raise a family then nurture and care for their offspring until they are independent and know how to sustain themselves.

Some creatures must learn how to fly after they have grown flight feathers. All will need to learn how to acquire food, which means some will have to learn to hunt while others will need to learn to forage where the foods they require grow. All will need to learn what predators and similar dangers are and how best to avoid them.

It sometimes looks like an idyllic life to we humans, but in reality each day is a life and death challenge for wild creatures as they strive to reach maturity and have offspring of their own and the circle of life is completed.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

10 min read –

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, beginning with grasslands.

Grasslands can be naturally created following wildfires and floods from many years, decades, and centuries before, it’s been going on for millions of years really. Glacier movements have also created vast grasslands as they scraped over the Earth’s surface removing forests and altering the landscape by creating valleys and water drainage systems that are now vital components of the local habitat.

Here at the Preserve we have animals that are considered grazers that eat the grassland vegetation commonly made up of wild grasses, primitive grains, fungi and other plants that grow within their habitat. The featured species in the habitat are sometimes called megafauna and our grazing megafauna include Wood Bison, Musk OxWoodland Caribou, Elk, Mule Deer and even Thinhorn Mountain Sheep.  Some of these species also eat the tender branch ends, buds and leaves of trees like willow, birch and aspen.  These creatures are also called browsers as they wander through their habitat and consume the tips of the bushes and young trees they encounter. The resulting pruning of these trees and bushes by the animals contribute to greater health of the habitat vegetation by removing old growth and stimulating new shoots and buds. Their digestive waste (poop) adds nutrients back into the ground and frequently provides an ideal habitat for insects to thrive, and insects form the foundation of the food chain all creatures depend on.

As a point of reference, let’s focus on the Wood Bison (essentially a wild cow), their grassland habitat and all that lives there. Bison are another force of change on the landscape and have played a significant role in altering the landscape from transforming forest to grasslands and altering the vegetation of the grasslands. Bison often rub against trees to satisfy an itch on their bodies. If you look closely at the trees that are still standing in the Bison habitat at the Preserve, you’ll notice the bottom six to eight feet of bark has been rubbed off the tree. This prevents the flow of sap in the tree which will soon die due to a lack of nourishment, the Bison keep rubbing on the tree and soon they will have caused it to fall flat on the ground where it will rot. The Bison also eat any saplings that may start from the seeds of the once standing tree preventing new tree growth from beginning in the area. Over time, many thousands of Bison have had a tremendous influence on the land transformation on the continent and contributed greatly to the creation of the prairie regions of central North America. 

The stars of the show – the megafauna – are the bison of course, but there are many other creatures that are equally impressive when you get down and have a closer look, or look high into the treetops. The Arctic Ground Squirrels, commonly called gophers, are easy to see and hear as they whistle and chirp, fulfilling their jobs as the alarm system for the area they live in. They warn against predators mainly because Arctic Ground Squirrels are a preferred food for many carnivores, or meat eaters, who live on or visit the Preserve.

Eagles, hawks and owls can often be seen seasonally watching the ground from a high vantage point or flying lazy circles high above. Foxes and lynx like to eat ground squirrels too, so these prey animals are always on the lookout for danger and whistle loudly and scurry back to their burrows to evade what might be coming towards them.

Bald Eagles watch from high and low for prey animals – including Arctic Ground Squirrels who come out of hibernation in early spring.  In grassland habitats we can see the megafauna such as bison and deer, as well as the life cycles of smaller animals like the ground squirrel, who are quite vocal in their response to predators.

Ground squirrels contribute to the health of the habitat as a primary source of protein for other creatures that live there, but ground squirrels have a further contribution to the health of the habitat –  by digging burrows which allow water, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide under the surface to help fertilize the ground so that vegetation grows well.  Of course, numerous other creatures take advantage of the burrows dug by the ground squirrels. Mice of different varieties, voles, short-tailed weasels and an assortment of insects also like to seek shelter and make nests in these burrows.

In the spring when there is an abundance of melt-water, and before it gets too hot and dries out the puddles, look along the ditches next to the fences and if you have a sharp eye, you may find tiny Wood Frogs hopping among the wet grass and puddles.  Some migratory song-birds feed on these frogs as do the foxes and weasels.

The song birds are another very visible occupant of the grassland habitats. Some eat the seeds of the wild grasses and the Alfalfa hay we feed to supplement the bison’s diet. Other song birds eat from the huge selection of insects. Special mention should be given to the small population of Little Brown Bats1Canadian Wildlife Federation that migrate here for their summer vacation to eat voluminous amounts of mosquitos from each of the habitats; we are grateful for their contributions to pest control at the Preserve.

When the seasonal cold weather comes, the grasslands change. Most grasses stop growing and go to seed in the late summer to early fall and many of the seed eating migratory birds begin their trip back to the south when this vital energy source becomes available. The end of summer triggers a number of changes for both the landscape and the animals that live on it. Some species will migrate south to warmer climates while others will begin their preparations to live through a Yukon winter. Some mice and voles gather winter food caches and will store these in holes they dig or in middens they make from long grass once there is some snow on the ground. In short, they adapt to live in colder conditions when there is much less food available, so they gather food when it is in abundance and store it for their needs over the winter months.

Arctic Ground Squirrel gathering dried grasses.  Some animals, such as rodents, gather food when it is in abundance and store it for their needs over the winter, or early spring, months.

A midden is a temporary shelter rodents make out of long grasses and moss and looks like a ball of grass or a bird nest with a closed top – just a small hole to enter and exit. Ground squirrels gather and store food as well but for the springtime when they emerge from hibernation and nothing is growing yet. Arctic Ground Squirrels are among the first species to begin hibernation and start sometime in mid to late September depending on the weather conditions. The gender of a ground squirrel will also dictate hibernating times with females entering hibernation earlier in the fall, as well as emerging later in the spring, than males. During hibernation, they do not wake up to eat. They are usually the first creatures to emerge from hibernation in the spring as the snow melts away.

When the snow begins to cover the hard frozen ground, it looks like it’s only the megafauna and a few ravens that are living here, but beneath the snow is the winter community of tunnels and middens that some rodent populations build and use to move about seeking food, reproducing and visiting with friends.  Others, like the Arctic Ground Squirrel, hibernate through the long, cold winter.

Foxes and owls are famous for their winter hunting abilities. They listen for rodents moving under the snow and can capture them with remarkable accuracy. Owls catch the mouse in its talons after listening from a distance and determining where the small creature is when those sharp talons pierce the snow and hold the mouse firm. Foxes can be seen listening while turning their heads from one direction to another in order to pin-point the location of the mouse ahead of them. With a high arching jump the fox pounces on the mouse through the snow. Not all attempts are successful and practice will improve results for young foxes to secure a meal. 

But they will never run out of mice to practice on. Depending on the availability of food and when conditions are good, some momma mice can give birth to a litter of babies up to ten times per year and there can be from one to sixteen pups per litter. And the next generation will only need 6 to 8 weeks to reach reproductive maturity so they too can start having babies. Yup, that’s a lot of mice living in the grassland habitat.

Take the time to look beyond the megafauna and observe what else lives in the grasslands habitat, it’s wonderful how all the creatures work together without direction to maintain the places they live and thrive in. It’s their nature.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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