May 19, 2023
When describing a location, it’s common to say the place is “up north.” If it’s especially far off, we might go with “way up north.” But even that falls short of saying how far it is to the Arctic Circle. This imaginary line is so close to the top of the planet that for one day each December, the sun never fully rises above the horizon there. Some muskoxen, caribou and even polar bears live farther from the North Pole than that. We’re definitely not talking about whitetail country.
But wait a second. Maybe we are. Believe it or not, there’s reason to think the whitetail is trying to colonize parts of Arctic Canada. In fact, evidence of it started to show up many years ago. Telling the story behind these deer takes plenty of backtracking, not to mention a big dose of speculation. Here’s what’s known, and what isn’t, about the most northerly whitetails on earth.
REMOTE . . . TO SAY THE LEAST
The scene of our odd tale is along the lower Mackenzie River in Northwest Territories, that massive province above British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan just to the east of Yukon. The latitude is roughly that of northern Siberia and the uppermost parts of Scandinavia. In terms of drainage area, the Mackenzie is North America’s second-largest river. It starts near Fort Providence, at the outlet to Great Slave Lake, and flows to the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea over 1,000 miles northwest. En route, the river transforms into a murky mammoth, due to the added flow of several tributaries that are themselves major waterways. The Mackenzie is essentially Canada’s version of the Mississippi River.
This part of the world takes lonesome to another level. In fact, Region 2, in which much of the Mackenzie valley lies, is essentially unpopulated. Although roughly a third the size of Texas, it’s home to only around 2,300 people — and roughly half of them reside in one of two river communities, Norman Wells or Fort Good Hope. The region’s population density is roughly 60 square miles per person. If any place ever discussed in this magazine could be called “the middle of nowhere,” Region 2 is it.
Most residents are Sahtu Dene, indigenous First Nations peoples whose history here spans thousands of years. Their lifestyle centers around subsistence hunting, mainly of caribou and moose, netting fish and gathering wild berries and roots. Agriculture of any kind is tough, as the frost-free season is only about three months long. You’ll find few roads substantial enough for even the daredevils of Ice Road Truckers to tackle. However, the Mackenzie itself is a handy travel route. Huge barges make their way to the ocean from Great Slave Lake, while locals use small boats to motor up and down the river as the weather allows.
AN INEXPLICABLE ENCOUNTER
Alasdair Veitch is retired and living back in his native Nova Scotia. But back in the 1990s, he worked in Region 2 as the Supervisor of Wildlife Management for Northwest Territories’ wildlife agency, Environment & Natural Resources. He vividly recalls June 28, 1996, as the day he got his hands on an animal he’d never imagined seeing there.
“I was having dinner with some friends at my house on a Sunday afternoon in Norman Wells when there was a knock on the door. I went to see who it was, and here was Lawrence Jackson on the step and a pickup truck in the driveway. He said to come out and see what he had in the back of the truck. “There was a young female whitetailed deer — entire,” the biologist continues. “I think my jaw literally dropped! I asked Lawrence where he’d got it, my mind racing. He calmly told me the story of how he and three buddies were in their boat coming back from Fort Good Hope (roughly 100 miles north of Norman Wells) and had seen something swimming in the river. They thought at first it was a goose, then got closer and figured it was a caribou calf . . . and then, when they got alongside, they weren’t right sure what it was.”
There are no defined seasons or license requirements for native hunters in Northwest Territories, provided they have aboriginal hunting licenses. So the men promptly killed the mystery animal and pulled it into their boat, then resumed motoring upriver toward home.
“I told (the hunters) they had a young female white-tailed deer,” Veitch recalls. “And they asked me how I thought it had got there.” Great question. The kill had been made about halfway between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope, putting it just above the 65th Parallel. That’s farther north than Nome, Alaska, or Reykjavik, Iceland. Indeed, to Veitch’s knowledge, no whitetail in history had ever been found that far from the equator. “I came up with a few scenarios, but to this day I don’t know which one could account for it,” the biologist says.
The best conclusion was that the doe had moved way north from one of the small, scattered pockets of whitetails rumored to live in southern Northwest Territories. But even that seemed quite a stretch. Those pockets were believed to be several hundred miles away.
Recognizing the need to fully document this doe, Veitch authored a paper on the incident. Titled “An Unusual Occurrence of a White-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus, in the Northwest Territories,” the treatise appeared in a 2001 issue of Canadian Field-Naturalist. In this paper, the biologist noted that the deer’s age had been pinpointed as 3 years, based on having submitted a lower incisor to Matson’s Laboratory in Montana for cementum annuli analysis. A hair sample sent to Alberta’s wildlife forensics laboratory had confirmed the species as pure whitetail.
Between the 1996 doe kill and publication of the paper in 2001, Veitch had learned of a few other Northwest Territories whitetails, but all of them much farther south than Jackson’s. “I remember a report of three across the Mackenzie River from Tulita by a helicopter pilot who was a reliable source of information to us,” he says. That village’s location is roughly 45 miles southeast of Norman Wells, making it about 110 miles southeast of the Jackson kill location. The other two reports were farther south, around the river village of Wrigley.
Research has suggested that in western Canada energy exploration, often conducted along narrow seismic lines through the “bush,” could aid whitetail range expansion. These cutlines often regrow in willow, birch and alder, all of which offer browse in a land dominated by black spruce and other conifers. Perhaps the deer Jackson’s party killed had followed these manmade travel corridors and feeding areas north.
MORE SHOCKING STILL
Regardless of how a whitetail doe ended up north of the 65th Parallel, simply based on location that 1996 kill might rank as the most shocking in whitetail history. At least, it did for 11 years. Then another Dene hunter apparently stretched the limits of reality even farther. About 100 miles north of the Jackson doe’s location, and only about 170 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, is the riverside settlement of Little Chicago. It’s just above the Arctic Circle. And it’s where the most northerly whitetail in history is said to have been taken.
Henry Charney, a Dene hunter from Fort Good Hope, is credited with killing that deer in 2007. Reports are that it was an antlered buck, but beyond there, details are practically nonexistent. While an effort was made by Veitch’s successor in the regional ENR office to at least get a photo of the animal, none ever was obtained. (My efforts to contact the hunter also have been unproductive). The “proof” of the animal’s identity, according to Veitch, is that many townspeople saw it and vouched for it having been an antlered deer. There’s apparently never been a mule deer reported farther north than the southwestern corner of the province, so if Charney’s kill was a deer, it almost had to have been a whitetail.
THE QUEST FOR CLUES
So how far north have whitetails actually managed to get? How many are living along the lower Mackenzie? And have they been there all along? Despite having spent years working as a biologist on the Mackenzie and researching all known or even suspected sightings of whitetails in the region, Veitch says such questions are difficult to answer. The northern limits of the whitetail’s range still are, in his words, “poorly defined.”
To my knowledge, the Charney buck remains by far the world’s most northerly ever reported. The Jackson doe is the most northerly ever fully documented. Alaska wildlife officials suspect the species might be working its way westward into that state. However, if that happens, it will likely be around Haines, which is much farther south than the lower Mackenzie. Yukon’s scattered pockets of whitetails likewise appear limited to more southerly areas.
If we instead turn to the east, the only ungulates known to live anywhere from the Mackenzie all the way around to northern Russia are caribou, moose and muskoxen. Not even descendants of the Minnesota whitetails released in southern Finland in the 1930s have made it nearly that close to the North Pole.
Trying to figure out how long whitetails have been on the lower Mackenzie, and how many there might now be, is likewise a daunting challenge. I’ve found no references to them in the 19th century writings of French missionary Emile Petitot, who spent decades in the region and recorded much of its human and natural history. Caribou and to some extent moose dominate his descriptions of Dene hunts. Even now, nowhere in the province is it a simple matter to observe a whitetail. Wildlife photographer Matt Miller says he’s never seen one around where he lives in Hay River, though several other locals apparently have — including his wife. He once did get a quick photo of a doe near Fort Smith, roughly 150 miles to the southeast on the Saskatchewan border. That’s the clearest live whitetail image I’m sure was taken in Northwest Territories.
ANSWERS IN TECHNOLOGY? The Jackson and Charney whitetail kills occurred purely by chance. The fact there haven’t been more kills or even confirmed sightings in the Mackenzie valley might suggest how few deer are there. Then again, it might also in part simply reflect the lack of people.
In theory, trail cameras could help solve the mystery of how far north the whitetail really has moved in the province and how many now live there. Interestingly, a couple months ago ENR announced expansion of its Biodiversity Monitoring Program, which will employ an extensive network of cameras and audio sensors in some remote, ecologically sensitive areas. While this effort isn’t being focused on whitetails, perhaps an image of at least one will turn up in the process.
NO ‘WELCOME’ SIGN HERE
Part of what makes Northwest Territories whitetails’ apparent range expansion intriguing is that ENR officials really don’t want it to happen. Nor do the native peoples whose world centers around caribou and moose. That’s because of concerns over chronic wasting disease, which has been confirmed in neighboring Alberta and Saskatchewan. CWD has been shown to infect caribou and moose, so there’s fear that any whitetail or mule deer moving north might bring the disease into the province with them. Not only has ENR made it illegal to bring many forms of wildlife and wildlife parts into Northwest Territories, the agency actively encourages the year-round harvest of any whitetail or mule deer by resident hunters, with no bag limit. Deer then are to be submitted for disease testing.
By making its way up to the Arctic Circle, the whitetail has emphatically put the “North” in this magazine’s name. If predictions of a warming global climate prove accurate, perhaps one of these deer someday will make it all the way to the mouth of the Mackenzie and be the first to gaze out over the frigid Arctic Ocean itself. That is, if one hasn’t already.