A guest post and photos by Katarzyna Nowak. Nowak, a fellow at The Safina Center in New York, describes herself as a “wildlife conservation practitioner aspiring to bridge the science-policy-society interface.”
The zone north of 60 degrees latitude receives relatively little attention in the realm of wildlife crime. Vast areas of Alaska and the Yukon and their borderlands are stewarded by few people. For scale, Alaska is larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined and more than 3.5 times larger than the Yukon. A diversity of large, migratory mammals such as caribou, elk, moose, and Pacific walrus inhabit the region. Some are regarded as cultural keystone species that underpin the livelihoods of northerly indigenous people, yet their “value” gets contested and trivialized in the courts. Hunting pressure is high including at remote, fly-in only outposts.
While whistleblowers have helped expose wildlife criminals by, for example, sending anonymous letters to Alaska Wildlife Troopers about illegal hunting activities, these instances have been few, raising the question: If an animal is poached in the far north, will someone be around to witness it? A variety of domestic and international routes lead into and out of the region by ground, air, and water, and traffic is increasing on northern shipping lanes.
In June 2018, while on fieldwork in the Yukon, I was sent a news article, “Black market animal smuggling is booming in Canada”. The Director General of Wildlife Enforcement for Environment Canada, Sheldon Jordan, described how his department, anticipating an unusually busy year of animal smuggling, had shifted more resources to the seizures team. According to Jordan, live animals are smuggled into Canada for the pet trade, and dead animals and their parts for décor, food, and traditional medicine, with a spike during summer months. He described a remote border crossing between Alaska and the Yukon—called Alcan-Beaver Creek—as having the second highest number of illegal incidents after metropolitan Vancouver. Is this because Customs and Border Protection are able to check a majority of vehicles or because smugglers see it as a convenient cross-border backdoor?
Upon visiting, I realized this crossing is unlike the northernmost one known as Top of the World, where U.S. and Canadian border authorities occupy the same site. At Alcan-Beaver Creek, the two border stations are separated by more than 20 miles. The in-between zone (under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at least until the cutline that demarcates the international border half a mile from the U.S. Alcan station) struck me as a loophole: You could leave Alaska, stash items in Canada, clear customs at Beaver Creek, and return later (short of the U.S. border) to pick up your illicit goods. You could then re-enter explaining you hadn’t left Canada—and get waved through. I know it’s possible, because I did it (minus the stashing of any items). Additionally, people living in Beaver Creek enter this in-between zone to go to a dumpsite.
Often the more serious offenses, beyond paperwork violations and unlawful transport, happen farther afield away from official border posts. Detection may depend on whistle-blowing, saying something if seeing something suspicious including on social media or hunt chat forums. Charges have been brought against hunters and outfitters in this way.