Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Project Jukebox Survey

Help us redesign the Project Jukebox website by taking a very short survey!

Wilson Justin, Interview 2, Part 2

This is a continuation of the interview with Wilson Justin on April 23, 2015 by Leslie McCartney and Barbara Cellarius at the offices of the Cheesh’na Tribal Council in Chistochina, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Wilson talks about the effects of climate change on the landscape, on the subsistence lifestyle, and on the wildlife population in his area.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-14-20_PT.2

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Apr 23, 2015
Narrator(s): Wilson Justin
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney, Barbara Cellarius
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Effects of climate change on subsistence lifestyle

Climate change is not a new phenomenon

Local discussion of changes

Effects of climate change on the landscape and berry picking

Changes in behavior and size of mountain sheep and caribou

Changes in size of moose and mountain sheep and thoughts about cause

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


LESLIE McCARTNEY: -- make it living on a subsistence lifest -- out in the bush with a subsistence lifestyle right now.

But before we were filming, you were talking about how much the climate has really changed and how that's affected animals, too.

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I would rather -- I would rather blame the Park Service on not making a living then climate, but --

But it's -- it's true. One of the factors, the major factor, is the climate change activities that completely upset the cycles of these small games and the fishes and even caribou feed.

So a major reason for not being able to make what we used to call a good living off the backcountry is climate change.

The headache I have with climate change and agencies is that this was going on since I was a teenager, and you could not get recognition from agencies on this issue until the last five or six years.

Now everybody talks about climate change. What's the point of talking about it 50 years after it happened? That's like talking about the horses after they break out of the corral and disappear.

So now we have this issue of what do you do about the climate? Well, it's not a question of what you do about the climate, it's about -- it's really a question about the impact of the regulatory structure in terms of the rules of animals and game in the backcountry.

Right now, Cheesh’ne is looking at water temperature, water qualities, upland habitat issues because it has an immediate impact on salmon.

Salmon is a major nutritional source here in the village. The last major nutritional source because moose kind of evens out. It costs about a thousand dollars to get a moose and the value of a moose is around a thousand to twelve hundred dollars in food. So it's pretty even.

Salmon is still -- you can get a hundred salmon or a hundred-fifty salmon or thereabouts for about fifteen dollars or twenty dollars worth of gas, plus your time.

So there's still an immense profit margin for salmon in terms of nutritional value.

Well, in my estimation, this is how agencies should be looking at the landscape. What's the nutritional value of the landscape in terms of the impact of climate change?

We should've had that question posed and looked at in 80’s and the 90’s at the same time we were seeing the game disappearing.

So, that’s to me is the big disappointment in climate change is that nobody talked about it until the last few years, long after the ability to deal with it was in place.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you said you've been noticing for over 50 years that things have been changing. So am I correct, is that -- ?

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I was 12 years old as I mentioned when I was over -- out in hunting camp. That was 1962.

My Uncle Johnny was there, Glenn Brewster and Nelson John. We were camped -- one of the places we camped was up at the head of Platinum Creek.

To the left and just a bit over is Tetlin Pass about 5,500 feet up there.

My stepfather had a working arrangement with Tetlin Village Council about hunting over there, so we were hunting over there.

I went with my Uncle Johnny. We got up to the pass and right straight in front of us there's this giant slab of ice from the mountain down to the trail about fifty foot from the trail -- horse trail was where the ice ended.

And my uncle said when he was young nobody went through that pass because ice was all the way down.

Another half mile down and to the drop off. So nobody used that pass. They went down to the next pass down or they used Suslota.

So I asked around. I talked to Jack. He said, yeah, that was all ice. We used to -- he said we used to walk from Buck Lake -- Tuck Lake over towards that hill just before Nabesna River. There's a big trail there.

And he said the ice on the mountain would be a half mile up the creek.

So I saw the ice next to the trail in 1962. When I went back through there in 1972, the ice was all already half mile up to the mountains.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: That was only 10 years later? WILSON JUSTIN: That was only 10 years later.

And then my family would tell me the last time they were able to -- to easily cross the Nabesna River was 1953. From the old village up to Reeves Field

We would go up for Fourth of July and they would cross, walk up the river, no problem. By 1956, the river was rampaging.

I saw it in 1965 with Paul Sinyon when we went over to get horses. And Paul was just flabbergasted. He had never seen that river like that. Three major swimming channels.

So these occurrences were very quick. The problem is -- the problem is I had no context. All I ever saw was change.

I never saw a stable stationary period where things did not change.

And the older folks, when they talked about it, they -- they -- like with the ice, they would say -- they would say, well, it was all the way over there when I was young. But they would not talk about the question of weather or anything like that. They refused to discuss climate change.

To them it was the Creator’s province, and you don’t question what the Creator did. If he wants the ice to melt down in five years, that's what happened.

So the older folks would not talk about climate change in a way that I could react to.

When I got to be in the 80’s when I first -- we didn’t use terms like climate change or global warming.

What we talked about was the mountains melting down. The ice was rapidly disappearing from the six or seven thousand foot level, and we just said the mountains are melting.

But we all thought about it in our area very localized. We never talked about it in terms of the state.

So it was about, probably, late 1980’s before I began to get a sense that this was actually global worldwide. Argentina, Chile, France.

So I was almost 40 years old before I got the sense that it's just not Nabesna. It's the whole doggone world.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So when you say you talk about it locally, what would you talk about?Like what -- what was going to impact you locally with the changes or -- ?

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, when we talked about it locally, it was a sense of when is it going to stop. When is it going to quit melting because it impacts --

One of the -- one of the things that happened was it's the reason why I could shorten up the distance between camps, 'cause the swamps were drying -- drying up.

When my uncle found out where I put the trails, he was stunned, 'cause when he was out there you could not take horses through there.

Everywhere I shortened up there was either ice or what you would call impassable bogs. And he was just absolutely stunned that I could -- we could go through there.

So to us, climate change was beneficial to the business. We could not have 10 day hunts without climate change.

But the question is with when will it stop? That was the big --

When you look at it in a local basis like that, it's very easy to think about as a seasonal thing. As a 30-year long season as opposed to a one-year long season.

By the time I got into my late 30’s, I began to get the sense that it's not going to stop.

And we're talking about something really serious here. But it took another ten years probably ’95 thereabouts, probably ’95, ’96, when I really began to talk about climate change as a generational -- generational impact.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And as we were talking before we -- we went on camera, even some of the permafrost is now freezing which -- or melting, which means now that the water levels are dropping which means the lichens are disappearing which has an impact on caribou.

WILSON JUSTIN: And the kind of caribou. And the -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Kind of caribou, yes.

WILSON JUSTIN: Whether or not they're stationary or whether or not they just come through and they don’t calf around like they used to.

So the whole thing about climate change in terms of topologically changes is really boiling down to the question of we have an extended drought in ’65 and ’95 in our region where lakes were drying up, creeks were drying up, permafrost disappearing, and then we had the 2005 extended rains where everything filled back up.

And most people would say, well, that's natural. That's the way things work. We had a drought and it all -- then the rains came back and except for the fact that the other stuff that you needed to come back, didn’t come back.

2005, 2006, I think we had four summers of pretty consistent rains. The permafrost never came back. The lichens never came back. The berries never came back.

So the berry crop, which was a staple and was very much a part of our life cycle doesn’t have a place in our system anymore because there're so few. And when they do come out, they burn up in a matter of days.

The berry season used to be two weeks. Now if you don’t get out there in two or three days, they're pulpy by the time you get to 'em.

So all those changes are a direct function of climate change.

But the part that makes me the angriest is when people like me talk about it back then they get this what I call -- Epic is a horse I used to own. He lived to be 34 years old and eventually he died from his teeth going bad.

But Epic had this masterful talent of knowing when work needs to be done and disappearing.

So any time he senses work he’d get this epic stare. He’d be looking at you. The next day he'd be gone.

That's the way I felt with agencies and when I was dealing with public meetings about question of climate change and changes. You get this epic stare and next days everybody's gone.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: I found one thing earlier you said interesting was about how the sheep used to urinate in their own spot and that's where they always stay. They might go a little afield, but that was where they stayed.

But you're not seeing that anymore. So with the pressure of hunting and lack of land and climate changing, the animal cycle is changing and their size is actually changing.

WILSON JUSTIN: Sizes definitely are changing. The question of the animals being restless, actually, you have to be cautious there because I have not -- I have watched them move and move and move and move.

And at first, I suspected that we're talking about a constant hunting for food. There's lots of green growth up there, but not a lot of sheep food.

But there's also in the background a nagging question that I have yet to really figure out how to pose.

What if those sheep that we're looking at back in our area are infected with ticks from local population from south? Let’s say British Columbia moving north, which would produce the same antsyness that it would if they were constantly hungry or eating stuff that didn’t -- failed to meet their nutritional needs.

The only way you're going to answer that is to go up there and shoot one of those constantly moving sheep and check it to see if there are ticks.

Because that's a different kind of question. That kind of question is ultimately related to the issue of the danger from domestic animals on a parasitic basis getting into wild population.

There you have a very subtle shift in the way you're going to approach the problem, 'cause that would automatically give all agencies unilateral authority to say we can’t have any more hunting. It's dangerous for you.

So I'm very cautious about that posing that question.

The last person you want to tell you whether or not ticks are bad for you is the park ranger. I want to find out myself by eating it.

If it's dangerous to me, I'll find out. But I don’t need the federal government to tell me that that sheep is dangerous 'cause it runs around where these ticks from British Columbia.

So that's the subtle difference why I'm very cautious on how I approach the question. I'm watching them do things they shouldn’t be doing.

You could attribute it to the question of foraging and the new vegetation not meeting nutritional needs, but they act precisely like I've seen caribou act when caribou are beset by insects.

So that's why I get this little tingling of danger in the back of my mind.

I used to watch caribou lay for an hour or two, get up, shake their head and their horns and the whole body, turn around and lay back down. An hour later do that, then get up and take off for about four miles and then lay down. And they would always look for snow and ice.

When you harvest caribou, you find their ears and their eyes and their nose filled with insects. So that's the driving reason.

Well, you don’t need ticks, in my mind, to make sheep act like that. You could use any kind of insects. But I don’t know that because I've never been able to shoot a sheep in June or July where these behavioral patterns are the most -- that's when they're most telling.

Now in August and September when everybody hunting sheep they're always moving. You don’t want to go up and do anything then besides the weather's changed.

You want to look at the sheep in June and July when it really matters. When these lambs are really young. The constant movement like that has got to have a detrimental effect on the young.

But those are the kind of stuff that I'm very interested in. Really difficult to get any real feedback from agencies on those basis.

I think the real question here is whether or not a regulatory structure can anticipate and react before it happens.

In the old days, meaning in the early days that the park service and BLM and all those, you didn’t have to anticipate. All you had to do was log the numbers and if the numbers are not what you expected, go out and do something.

I don’t think agencies have that latitude now. You have to anticipate problems and move to resolve the problems before the problems become problems.

That's a very difficult issue for agencies to look at. They like numbers. They like allocation.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah, but just to clarify. You'd said that you'd noticed that the animals were getting smaller over time. You didn't really clarify that.

WILSON JUSTIN: Yeah, that's a -- that's a really a subjective thing because here's -- here's what you have to remember on animal size. The moose are getting bigger. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Are they?

WILSON JUSTIN: And I can’t quantify that because like so many subjective things, but I can tell you that the average size of our moose is way bigger than when they were first here in 1965 and through there.

Now that -- there's always been big moose around. The question is how come we have bigger moose now?

Well, if you took that question and turn it the other way around and say did you -- was the big or little moose issue directly related to the longevity issue?

In other words, Indians being Indians in 1950 wouldn’t allow a moose to reach maturity. So that's what you have to watch, you know.

Now moose -- mooses now I believe get to be mature animals before they're shot so they're bigger.

Now let’s go back to the sheep where size again becomes a discussion item.

Since I'm not living in their locality and I don’t spend a lot of time around their tracks, the question of sheep size boils down to the issue of what you take, which is the rams.

So are we talking about the same longevity issue? Are we taking rams too prematurely to be able to make an assessment?

'Cause on the other side of the coin, I'm looking at sheep with binoculars all the time. And they don’t seem to be as big as I remember them. But that's a function of time, age, and all of that stuff.

The general appearance of these ewes and lambs, to me, they’re smaller and fewer from when I was around them constantly. The rams are smaller in body.

I don’t know if that's a function of longevity or a function of food and depletion and nutrition. You could flip a coin and probably say either way.

What I would like to see is a lot of time put into that question of following -- allowing for rams or -- or -- or to go to maturity. 12, 13, 14 years of age or if you happen to shoot a ram that's 13 or 14 years of age. Take some very specific measurements about weight.

So -- 'Cause that, to me, that's a very important question to be posed and answered. And I don’t think anybody's asking the question or is interested in what you would call the potential outcome of that kind of questions.

But if you were to ask me right off the bat, Wilson, are things get -- are sheep getting smaller? I would say yes.

And that's a very subjective response. I understand the other parts of the question on longevity and what have you, but I would still say yes they're getting smaller.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Barbara, do you have any more questions?

BARBARA CELLARIUS: I think we've pretty much covered what I was interested in talking about.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: I learned a lot, Wilson. Thank you. We want to thank you for your time. I learned a lot about how guiding has changed over the years.

BARBARA CELLARIUS: It's really interesting.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: I really didn’t know a lot of that.

WILSON JUSTIN: And you're lucky because my memory's starting to go.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us today. Thank you.

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, I hope -- I hope -- I hope the discussion has some value. Seems -- seems like I've been talking all my life and nothing changes. Nothing happens. Same old, same old, year after year.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Well, let’s hope this will make a difference somehow. Thanks.