“Did you see that?” I blurted out in bewilderment. My buddy, Greg, was slumped half asleep in the passenger seat beside me as we cruised to northern Alberta for a backcountry black bear hunting adventure. “See what?” Greg groggily responded without opening his eyelids.
“I just saw a whitetail. I can’t believe I just saw a whitetail this far north.” Greg shook his head and went back to dreaming about big black bears, but what he didn’t know was we were less than an hour from the border of the Northwest Territories (NWT), a region associated with moose and sheep, but definitely not whitetails.
The invisible whitetail border might be moving north by the day as whitetails trek toward the Arctic Circle. Where will it end? In my youth, the geographic limits to the whitetail range ended somewhere to the south of Peace River, Alberta, with a line extending across Canada to the east and west. This distribution map appears in the 1981 edition of “The Deer of North America” by noted deer authority Leonard Lee Rue III.
My black bear trip took me smack through that region and beyond. In fact, we spotted whitetails along the roadside all the way to Meander River along Canada Highway 35. Our Alberta jumping off point was Steen River, a small firefighting camp notched out of the dense brush and timber common in the northern tier of the province. Gas and oil exploration in the area has carved out roads and small green areas where crews have placed well heads and pipelines targeting Alberta’s oil sands.
Not able to get whitetails out of my mind, I queried Alberta outfitter Jeff Downing, owner of True North Outfitters, our black bear connection. He confirmed my suspicions and pointed to an area where he spied a whitetail doe recently, less than 31 miles from the NWT border. He also had tracked another whitetail less than 15 miles from the border while hunting moose.
Before you plan a hunting trip to the NWT, consider the fact that currently there is no deer hunting season in the territory. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hunt the northern fringes for whitetails. According to current hunting regulations, the Yukon has a deer season in place and whitetails are on the menu (10 resident-only licenses available through a draw). Even so, the Yukon Environment office has a disclaimer saying whitetails are extremely rare and that hunters should refrain from shooting if they encounter one.
The Yukon Environment office states that deer sightings, both muleys and whitetails, date back to the 1920s, but for whitetails 1975 is the date noted for a confirmed sighting along the British Columbia border near Tagish Lake. Sightings have continued along with confirmed road kills in recent years. Combined, road kills and visual sightings substantiate, according to Yukon Environment research, “an increasing trend which points to a growing number of deer and to an expanding distribution.”
Mule deer sightings have been documented as far north as Dawson in the Yukon, and for whitetails it’s slightly farther south. A documented report places a whitetail near Moose Creek along the Klondike Highway.
Can whitetails make it to Alaska? The trip from the Moose Creek region to the Alaska border is less than 200 miles. Most extreme northernmost sightings and reports in Alaska are linked to mule deer movement, but who says a hardy whitetail can’t make the journey?
The Yukon Territory sits straight north of British Columbia that boasts a whitetail population scattered across a third or more of its land mass. Yukon whitetail sightings in its southern half and the pathway from British Columbia mean an Alaska whitetail vacation could be a distinct possibility in the future. But why are whitetails making this trek north?
Valerius Geist, a retired professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary in Alberta, told me the rapid northerly expansion of whitetails is linked directly to the greenways being cut north throughout the Canadian provinces. Human civilization, highways, energy pipelines and even dispersed agriculture open dense timber, resulting in greenways that are ideal for wildlife dispersion. In fact, he predicted the arrival of whitetails in Alaska in the near future due to this greenway process extending north to The Last Frontier.
Sophie Czetwertynski, a moose, elk and deer biologist with Environment Yukon, views climate as more of a factor than habitat alteration as Geist indicated. According to Czetwertynski, agriculture has expanded in the territory, but even so, the harsh climate of the Yukon continues to curtail deer expansion. For the sightings and distribution to increase over time, she believes a warmer climate is the overriding factor in northern expansion of deer herds.
And although climate might be providing the welcome mat for whitetails, it also rears its ugly side with consistent returns to traditional winters that rein in the steady march north of both whitetails and mule deer. There’s a reason moose are immense and inhabit extreme northern climates; it has to do with a biological law of nature referred to as Bergmann’s Rule, which states that the farther north or south of the equator that a species lives, the larger the body will be for survival. That’s why deer have larger body sizes in Canada, and why moose rule the extreme North Country.
Regardless of your beliefs about global warming or man’s influence over habitat, whitetails are taking advantage of factors to move north and inhabit new neighborhoods. With the whitetails’ ability to adapt, I give them a good chance to one day gain a foothold in Alaska.