The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary 

Northwest Territories & Nunavut, Canada

Canada's Wilderness Jewel

Covering an area of approximately 26,000 sq. miles, the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, straddling the boundary of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada's mainland Arctic, is the largest and most remote wildlife refuge on the North America continent -  and possibly the world.  As there is little surrounding development in this region, the unusual forest oasis located far out on the tundra truly represents one of the last great, unaltered ecosystems on our planet.  For those few fortunate enough to have ever visited this extreme remote region, the experience is like stepping back to a time when grizzly, wolves and musk-ox ruled the earth...

Barrenground caribou hereds folloiwng the Thelon valley in July / Copyright Maxwell Finkelstein
Some 300,000 (+/-) caribou calve within and migrate through the Thelon Sanctuary annually.
Click to enlarge photo.

musk-oxen graze in autumn tundra colours.  / Copyright Lonnie Brock
Musk-oxen populations in the Thelon Sanctuary and surrounding areas have flourished over the past century. 

During the intense studies carried out by the International Biological Program (IBP) in the 1960's, the Thelon Sanctuary was identified as a 'Biological Site of Universal Importance'. This was primarily due to the extreme biological diversity found in the unusual boreal forest oasis that for nearly 100 miles follows the meandering Thelon River valley located 200 + km north of the tree-line.  Many other important sites throughout the North identified by the IBP later became UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  However, accessible only with difficulty and high expense, the Thelon Sanctuary was all but a forgotten entity.

 The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary has always been a political enigma: control over this vast area has been passed from one government department to another - both federally and territorially - and subsequently there has never been a true management policy in effect - no department had the budget to police or even patrol such a vast, remote area. It remained closed to all development activity including native hunting since the 1920's; and was probably the only Sanctuary or Park in Canada that offered such full protection for wildlife. This anonymity of the Thelon Sanctuary was most probably its best protection during those times, as everyone seemingly left the Thelon alone. 

the cabin ruins and gravesite of the ill-fated Hornby Expedition to the Thelon in the winter of 1926-27.
History in the Thelon: the Hornby ruins and gravesite 

caribou antler along tundra beach on upper Thelon river / copyright Steve Maka

However, behind the scenes, huge international conglomerates were quietly out in that country bordering the Sanctuary while conducting sizeable uranium exploration programs and drilling camps in the 1970's and 1980's.  These companies began lobbying the Federal Government and native communities in the early 1980's intending to instigate changes to the protected disposition of the Sanctuary, and slowly but surely subtle changes were taking place; such as the removal of the Sanctuary off of the Federal maps. As of 2007, and the resurgence of interest in nuclear energy, renewed interest and exploration is now occuring in the upper Thelon River area. In 1986, a closed-door government review board was established to determine the fate of the Thelon Sanctuary along with other IBP sites in the Northwest Territories. The intent was to examine opening part or all of the Thelon Sanctuary for mining development. However, overwhelming public support to keep the Sanctuary closed to such development poured in from visitors, outfitters and biologists alike. and finally a decision was (hesitantly) reached to keep the Sanctuary closed to development - for the time being...


Diamonds have now entered the scene.  Major discoveries of Kimberlite pipes producing gem-grade diamonds have been discovered on the barrenlands north and east of Yellowknife, resulting in mining activities and huge developments slated or already underway.  One huge mine has just recently gone into production, a multi-billion dollar affair known as Ekati’ owned by Australian-based BHP Diamonds. De Beers, the world's leading diamond cartel, have set up offices in Yellowknife and are preparing to open their own mine within the next few years - as is London based Rio Tinto - the worlds' largest mining company.  All this new mining development has singly introduced the largest influx of human activity on the remote Canadian mainland tundra in history. 


The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary is a major
den habitat for wild tundra wolves

click to enlarge map
click on map to enlarge

In 1992, as part of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, a draft Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary management plan was prepared,  which then went to the hands of the Government of the Northwest Territories for their approval.  It passed back and forth over the next few years for 'changes'.  In 1999/00, the Government of Nunavut, Kivalliq Inuit Association, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. met to finalize a management plan for the Sanctuary in keeping with the obligations under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. The plan recommends, among other things, the establishment of a co-management Advisory Committee made up of government and community representatives to consider such things as special management areas outside the Sanctuary, use and access, and other management and planning recommendations. This plan apparently has been sitting in the 'basket' of the Minister of Resources, Wildlife & Economic Development, Government of the Northwest Territories for the past two years, without any further public consultation as to the proposed changes made. 



What's happening with the Thelon these days?

What happened to the management plan?   What are the changes that were made to the plan?  Doesn't the public have a right to know?  Why was the Thelon Sanctuary removed from the Federal of the official map of the NWT in the mid-1980's?  Why has the International Biological Program (IBP) studies about the Thelon - the critical document which identifies the Thelon as a biological site of universal importance - just apparently 'vanished' from every bookshelf, library & archive across Canada?

As of 2006, a renewed major thrust of mineral exploration, primarly for uranium, is now occuring in the upper Thelon River region, just outside and south of the Sanctuary boundaries. This is occuring despite tha fact that the upper Thelon region has been set aside as a significant aboriginal historical and cultural area under by Treaty 8, and exploration is not suppose to be occuring. The two major players exploring for uranium in the upper Thelon River area - and within the boundary of the old Sanctuary are UR Energy and Uravan Minerals.

What is really the future of the largest and most remote wildlife refuge in Canada?


Maybe there is hope for us after all - the Environmental Review Board recommends protective status for the Upper Thelon Basin!

As the on-going development of diamonds & uranium spread across the Canadian Northern mainland, so does encroachment upon some of our very last critical North American wilderness areas. The Thelon basin is indeed such a critical place. Acknowledged in importance by some of the world's leading nature photographers and travelers, the upper Thelon is a magical area of aboriginal history & powers, untouched wildlife and raw nature.

Click here or on photo to read a CBC News article about the MVEIRB conclusions and results of the meeting about mineral exploration applcaiton on the upper Thelon, or download the MVEIRB final report in PDF.

Caribou antler in upper Thelon sunset - photo copyright Don Nord


Click here for Conde Nast article!

In year 2000, Conde Nast Publications sent writer Alan Weisman and photojournalist Jay Dickman to the Thelon to investigate.  The resulting article was released in the December 2001 issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, titled 'Diamonds in the Wild'. This controversial article about the Thelon is on line:  click here to read the article.

Here are some other interesting links about the Thelon Sanctuary:

PhotoLife Article about the Upper Thelon area by Courtney Milne

The Thelon Mural - Yellowknife, NWT

Nunavut Parks - Thelon Heritage River

Nunavut Parks - Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary

Caribou Inuit

David Hanbury - Sport & Travel in the Northland of Canada

Helge Ingstad

1928: William Hoare and the Thelon Game Sanctuary

JB Tyrrell's Expeditions

C.H.D. Clarke

Commander George Back

John Hornby

Arctic Profiles - John Hornby (1880-1927)

The Legend of John Hornby

John Hornby & Edgar Christian - oh oh...

Dr. Bryan Gordon's archeological studies on the Thelon

Arctic Dawn - The Journeys of Samuel Hearne:

1928: William Hoare and the Thelon Game Sanctuary

Dr. Bryan Gordon's archeological studies on the Thelon

Cosmos 954

Guy Blanchet

P.J. Downes

The Rat Lodge on Artillery Lake

The Franklin Mystery

A history of - and some current issues about - the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary

The Thelon: Where Time & Light Stand Still

2004 photo collection from Nestor Lewyckyj's Thelon canoe trip

Dave Huffman's 2001 photo essay of his Thelon River trip

Muskox Bull Killed by a Barren-Ground Grizzly Bear - Thelon Game Sanctuary, NWT

Insect biodiversity in the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary

Ted's Keresote's 1996 Sports Afield Magazine article about his 1998 Thelon River trip

A list of links to photography taken in the Upper Thelon area

UR Energy

Uravan Minerals

Thelon History

Canadian Heritage River Secretariate: - Thelon

CBC: Upper Thelon uranium decision accepted by minister

CBC: Thelon decision rattles exploration industry

Nunavut Parks - Thelon Heritage River

Nunavut Parks - Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary

PhotoLife Article about the Upper Thelon area by Courtney Milne

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