Notes from 60° North
Wildlife of the north
Like the entire Northwest Territories, Fort Smith is known for wildlife. For years people from around the world have been travelling to the north to view animals in their natural habitat. But in the southern NWT, those animals are not what you would expect when thinking of the far north. There are no polar bears or muskoxen, and caribou have not been seen around Fort Smith since the 1950s.
In their place live a host of boreal-forest animals – sub-arctic creatures that range throughout the vast wilderness surrounding the town.
Moose are local favourites for their plentiful meat. Lynx are the beautiful, silent killers most people never see. Wolves haunt the forests in some of the largest packs known in the world, regularly bringing down the large herbivores that once sustained the people of this land as well as the animals.
One of those big herbivores, the wood bison, is by far the most famous animal of Fort Smith. Also known as buffalo, these behemoths have a national park named after them – Wood Buffalo National Park, headquartered in Fort Smith – which, fittingly, is also huge, around the size of Switzerland. The entrance sign to Fort Smith is in shape of a buffalo, the town’s crest features three buffalos, and a life-size statue of a buffalo stands majestically outside the recreation centre.
Wood bison look very similar to the North American plains bison that were killed nearly to extinction when European settlers moved west across the New World. The differences are in size – wood bison are slightly larger. Around Fort Smith the bison roam in herds, like to roll in dirt along the side of roads and often block the highways around town, forcing all vehicles to stop, honking, while the herd gazes serenely into the trees.
The Dene people still hunt bison, although the animals are protected in the park and seem to know it. It’s a common tale to hear of a bison standing just inside the park boundary, chewing grass and switching flies with his tail, while a hunter sits outside the park cursing him to cross the line.
Much harder to spot and much more exotic, an endangered flock of whooping cranes calls the northern sections of Wood Buffalo National Park home.
The whooping cranes arrive in the park in late May, build nests in the wetlands roughly 100kms from Fort Smith, lay and hatch their eggs and then raise their young before heading back to the southern USA for the winter months.
These birds, numbering under 300, are the last migrating flock in North America. They’ve been the focus of documentaries, books and countless efforts to stop their extinction since the 1960s, when the flock was down to under 50 birds and dwindling fast.
Besides biologists and the odd photographer, most people in Fort Smith have never seen a whooping crane in real life. The wetlands are virtually cut off from the land of people (and of potential predators like wolves and coyotes). It is a paradise for the endangered birds, and people in the know are happy to leave it that way, protected from hordes of enquiring visitors and additional stress on the fragile population.
The second most famous birds of the region are the North American white pelicans that spend all summer drifting around the plentiful rapids of the Slave River.
The river is well-known for having countless pickerel, and the pelicans are happy to exploit the resource. Over the course of their five month stay on the Slave, the pelican flock numbering between 1,000 and 2,000 birds will consume over 7,000lb of fish.
But despite these three exotic creatures, one wildlife species reigns supreme as the most iconic of all Fort Smith animals.
The raven – considered the trickster in many aboriginal cultures – has also been honoured by recent science as one of the smartest creatures of the animal kingdom. In Fort Smith ravens outnumber all other birds 10 to 1. Hundreds of them live at the town dump, while last year’s annual Fort Smith bird count spotted over 700 ravens in the town proper.
It is not uncommon to see ravens riding on the backs of pickup trucks down village streets. One famous Fort Smith cab driver has his own raven that rides on the hood of his cab.
Ravens also terrorize dogs, ganging up to trick the poor beasts into chasing some of them while others eat the dog food left behind.
People too are not immune to their scavenging. Despite locking systems of straps and buckles that would baffle Houdini, the birds somehow manage to regularly open garbage cans and feast on the remains, spreading garbage through town as they do.
My friend who grew up in Fort Smith swears ravens can learn to speak better than parrots. Her father, she told me, had trained three different ravens to be family pets during his lifetime, and was convinced the birds could understand human language far better than any dog.
Unfortunately the pet ravens always died before he could get them talking, something he chalked up to the domestication that dulled their natural survival sense.