Collapsed, 100-year-old Yukon Telegraph line believed to be killing moose across north
“This is an underdog problem. It’s not a popular cause like animal abuse and neglect, but it’s a clear case of animal cruelty without anyone being deliberate or intentional. It’s just a consequence of what humans have left out in the wilderness.”
Dr. Veronica Gventsadze is speaking about the 100-year old Dominion Government Telegraph Service line, a network of five-millimetre iron cables snaking through 2,900 kilometres of wilderness from Ashcroft, B.C. to its termination point in Dawson City, Yukon. Known as the Yukon Telegraph, this logistical marvel of its time connected the gold fields of the north to southern Canada.
The line was abandoned in the 1940s and 50s as wireless technology advanced.
But the galvanized cable was of such high quality it still shows no sign of corrosion or breakage today. As the original poles collapse, and trees topple, the cable either sags to the forest floor or lies in tangles beneath moss and foliage, creating a perfect trap for moose and, further north, caribou.
“A bull moose crashes through the forest with his antlers, and that’s it. That’s how he gets around,” Gventsadze says. “There must be a tremendous amount of anguish not being able to free himself [from the wire], possibly lying there exhausted, hungry—he’s live prey for a bear. The wire is like nothing found in nature, so the moose not having a chance to escape or protect itself is a completely unnatural situation.”
The Squamish-based veterinarian began a grassroots campaign to see the line removed in June, 2016, during an otherwise-regular visit to her Rosswood cabin in the Nass Valley, near Terrace. Her husband was picking lobster mushrooms when he stumbled across a one-kilometre stretch of the fallen line. He counted the corpses of three moose in varying stages of decomposition, she says.
“This is grizzly bear country, so the moose will be dragged off pretty quickly. We don’t know how many have been there before.” Since her husband’s discovery Gventsadze has found other sites along the Stewart branch of the telegraph service.After being told last year there was very little Conservation Officers Service could do in the matter, Gventsadze contacted the Terrace office again last month upon reading news reports of a prolific and intentional snaring operation in the Kitimat River Valley, which the COS is still investigating.
Speaking to Black Press at the time, CO Sgt. Tracy Walbauer said evidence of dead moose, grizzly bears, wolves and coyotes had been found in the illegal snaring.
“Those animals observed in the snares endured a great deal of suffering before death,” Walbauer said.
Based on photographs, Gventsadze is certain the snare wire was cut from the telegraph line. She says she also once found a snare intentionally fashioned directly within a tangle of telegraph cable on the ground. Though of minor concern compared to the thousands of kilometres of unintended hazard to wildlife, the snaring connection she says only deepens the telegraph’s deadly post-use legacy.
While a remediation project of this magnitude does not fit within the budget and mandate of the COS, CO Zane Testawich told the Terrace Standard he hopes to offer some community-level support in the spring, possibly by organizing a cleanup of the Rosswood site identified by Gventsadze’s husband.
In the meantime, neither provincial or federal departments have returned Gventsadze’s calls of who is responsible for remediation.
Andrew Gage, staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law, says finding a legal avenue to force remediation will be difficult on a project initiated by the fledgling Dominion Government in 1899. Political pressure may be the only way forward, he says.
“These sites do get cleaned up where there’s particular health concerns and public outcry over them, but there’s a lot that don’t get cleared up without that pressure.”
Gventsadze admits the costs of a remediation project on this scale would be large, but hopes elected officials will see it as an employment and skills-training investment for northern communities.
This was the case in Northwest Territories, where in 2015 a program partially sponsored by the federal government led to the removal of 116 kilometres of telephone wire from a Second World War pipeline project in the Mackenzie Mountains, along what’s now the Canol Trail. The program was renewed the next year, and a further 126 km of wire was removed, along with 27 racks of caribou antlers tangled within it, according to Northern News Services. The project was completed in January this year, seeing 80 tonnes of wire remediated from more than 350 kilometres of terrain. Indigenous and Northern Affairs said a key element of the program was to provide local workers with training in project management, field operations and occupational health and safety.
In Yukon Territory, the Carcross Tagish First Nation spearheaded the Southern Lakes Wire Recovery Project in 2015. In this case, the wire belonged to the same Yukon Telegraph line at the centre of Gventsadze’s concern.“It is still a very unrecognized problem,” she says. “But once people start talking about it, others will probably come out of the woodwork who have been making local efforts to remove these lines themselves.
“Just because we can’t witness these moose suffering and dying, it doesn’t make their deaths any less acceptable.”
Dr. Gventsadze has set up a petition for the cleanup of the Yukon Telegraph line at change.org.