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Small Mammals

Various Classifications

Snowshoe Hare (Snowshoe Rabbit) (Lepus americanus) - "Ukalliq"

Shrew (Sorex tundrensis, Sorex ugyunak, Sorex monitolus) - "Ugruknaq"

Lemming (Lemmus sibiricus, Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) - "Avingnaq"

Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus, Microtus oeconomus, Myodes rutilus) - "Avingnaq"

Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus arryii) - "Sikrik"

Inuvialuit refer to rare albino lemmings and voles as “Qilakmiutaq”, meaning “one from heaven”.

Population Status


Found in most regions of the northern Yukon.

Population size:

Known to fluctuate.

Population trend:

Known to fluctuate.

Unique or special characteristics:

Small mammals play key roles in both northern ecosystems. The cyclical rise and fall of their numbers reflect similar patterns in the population levels of their predators.

Habitat Features

Varied according to species.


From 1988 to 1999 Inuvialuit harvest data was collected through the Inuvialuit Harvest Study. In the period from 1988 to 1997, the average annual harvest reported of snowshoe hare was 348, with an average of 12 hunters per year reporting some harvest of hares. Harvest of ground squirrels is unknown.


Each of these species can be entertaining to observe.


Destruction of habitat, and climate change.

Species at Risk Status


General Status: All secure except Dicrostonyx groenlandicus and Sorex ugyunak, both of which are sensitive mainly because of their restricted range in the Yukon.

Research and Monitoring

Population monitoring:

No ongoing, long-term monitoring in place on the Yukon North Slope. The Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board and the NWT Department of Resource, Wildlife and Economic Development (RWED), have been collecting population trend information on snowshoe hares around the Inuvik area. This is part of a Northwest Territories-wide study on snowshoe hare population changes. In the NWT, small mammal and hare surveys have been conducted each year at specific sites since 1990, with hares generally surveyed in late-spring, early-June.


Very little work has been done on the small mammals of the North Slope. A few mammal inventory projects have made collections of species, the most recent in 2005. As part of the International Polar Year (IPY), a new project is examining lemming and vole population dynamics on Herschel Island and the coastal plain. This information is important for monitoring environmental change in the area that may be occurring because of climate change.

Community-based Information

In 2003, the Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope) and the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee undertook a project to record traditional knowledge of certain birds and animals on the Yukon North Slope. The observations, comments and concerns expressed by Aklavik residents as part of this study were as follows:

Snowshoe Hare (Snowshoe Rabbit) (Lepus americanus) - Ukalliq

  • People were surprised that there are no rabbits found on Herschel, since they are known to be on islands in the delta.
  • People go down to the coast and hunt rabbits there, especially near Running River and Blow River. More are found in willow areas on the North Slope than in the delta.
  • Delta populations are greatly reduced by floods (for example, in the 1970s) and cycles. They were low in number in 2002 and are coming back up.
  • Rabbits are always quite abundant inland, except in the Firth River area, and have been increasing in recent years. Elders know of places on the Yukon North Slope where there are always lots of rabbits and they are always fat.
  • People said they miss eating rabbits.

Shrews (Sorex tundrensis, Sorex ugyunak, Sorex monitolus) - Ugruknaq

  • Fish is a common bait in traps and shrews eat this bait to the bone. Trappers understood that this activity was related to the abundance of shrews.
  • One of the trappers noted that in some years shrews were very abundant and quickly removed much of the fish bait from mink sets in the delta.
  • When people lived in cabins made from logs, they saw shrews more often, as the shrews could get in more easily and run around.
  • People remember seeing them all over the delta and coast, but could not say much more.
  • One person had seen one swimming across a channel in the delta.
  • One person said he did not like shrews in his cabin. He reported that he had been bitten, and they kept him awake some nights climbing over him. He called them ‘pointy-nosed damn nuisances’.

Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus, Microtus oeconomus, Myodes rutilus)- Avingnaq

  • People interviewed did not want to talk about mice.
  • Mice and voles are widespread in the delta, along the shore, on the tundra and at pond edges.
  • People do not want mice and voles inside buildings.

Lemmings (Lemmus sibiricus, Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) - Avingnaq

  • Even though lemmings may be one of the most abundant animals on the Yukon North Slope, it is hard to find people in Aklavik who know much about them or want to talk about them.
  • People do not pay much attention to lemmings. People are usually not in habitats where lemmings are common, except on Herschel.
  • Lemmings are probably widespread. Numbers on Herschel vary between summers.
  • Lemming nests are seen in hollow logs and under boards.

Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii)

  • There aren’t any ground squirrels on Herschel but there used to be.
  • Ground squirrels are widespread on the North Slope in drier hillsides or on slopes along the coast and inland. They are abundant in the Firth River valley.
  • Numbers do not vary much from year to year.
  • Ground squirrels are active in late April.
  • Two elders said that numbers were down.

Community-based information on small mammals may also be found in the reports of the annual community-based monitoring program conducted in Aklavik and neighbouring communities by the Arctic Borderlands Ecological Knowledge Co-op.

An elder interviewed in 2008 described an area 30 miles down river from Aklavik, where the trees stop and the willows start, where rabbits are abundant. Years ago, one family harvested 600 rabbits in one weekend here. Missionaries used to buy rabbit meat from the Inuvialuit. Rabbits were and still are important to people as a source of meat, though numbers are down from 20 years ago.

Related Literature and Information Sources

Gordon, Danny C. Personal communication, Elder, Aklavik, NWT.

Joint Secretariat, 2003. Inuvialuit Harvest Study, Data and Methods Report 1988 - 1997. Inuvik, NT.

Jung, T. 2007. Personal communication. Government of Yukon, Department of Environment.

Smits, C., B. Slough and C. Yasui. 1989. Summer food habits of sympatric Arctic foxes and red foxes in the northern Yukon Territory. Canadian Field Naturalist 103 (3):363-367.

Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope) and the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee. 2003. Aklavik Inuvialuit describe the status of certain birds and animals on the Yukon North Slope, March, 2003. Final Report. Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope), Whitehorse, Yukon.

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