Far from barren, the tundra and subarctic forests surrounding Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coast yield incredible abundance that sustains both the people and wildlife that thrive here. The continued health of this vibrant ecology and the polar bear, this iconic ambassador of the arctic, are key ingredients to maintaining healthy and prosperous regional communities. The recently proposed Polar Bear Provincial Park presents an opportunity to secure this prosperity and assert Manitoba as a global leader in large landscape conservation.
Joshua Pearlman Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Manitoba Chapter
The rich, sweet smells of lichen and bog laurel escort us across the landscape, springing forth with each step in the soft tundra. I gently scrape a hand over the moist, low vegetation and effortlessly turn up a multi-coloured bounty of pink, black and deep purple. ‘Inuit Smarties’ my guide jokes as he gulps down a medley of cranberries, crowberries and blueberries.
Far from barren, the tundra and subarctic forests surrounding Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coast yield incredible abundance that sustains both the people and wildlife that thrive here. Wolves, foxes and wolverine hunt and scavenge on the heels of moose, hares and thunderous herds of caribou that in turn feed on the plants and lichen anchored in the deep, peat rich soils. In summers, over 250 species of birds call this place home.
Despite this dramatic diversity it is the polar bear that draws people from across the planet to experience Manitoba’s northern paradise. The continued health of this vibrant ecology and this iconic ambassador of the arctic are key ingredients to maintaining healthy and prosperous regional communities. The recently proposed Polar Bear Provincial Park presents an opportunity to secure this prosperity and assert Manitoba as a global leader in large landscape conservation.
The incredible scale and significance of such an opportunity is often lost on Canadians with little reference point for measures of ‘vastness’. While Europe works to protect disparate pockets of land totalling 10,000 km2 with the hopes of restoring their lost wilderness, Manitoba’s proposed Polar Bear Provincial Park is considering protections of over 29,000 km2 (4.5% of Manitoba) of ecologically significant land. Include the existing Wapusk National Park (11,475 km2) and we could see a continuous protected area comparable in size to the Netherlands. This vast landscape is particularly carbon rich and its protection would offer significant piece of Manitoba’s contribution to addressing global climate change.
Evidence of reduced polar bear body condition as well as reduced rates of reproduction and cub survival should be enough to put us on guard despite an incredible lack of consensus on the health of the Western Hudson Bay population. There is however, little debate that the winter sea ice they depend on to hunt seal is declining at an alarmingly rate; a situation that will create greater dependence on the health of their terrestrial habitats to support their survival. As recently recorded concentrations of polar bear denning sites near the Ontario border would fall within the proposed park, it would acutely safeguard this critical phase of their population cycle.
The habitats of hundreds of other species would also gain new protection if the park were established including significant portions of the Hudson’s Bay lowlands. As North America’s largest wetland and one of the world’s largest peat forming ecosystems, it plays a significant role in slowing down the impacts of global climate change by storing large amounts of carbon. Although they cover just 1/20 of the global landmass, northern peat forming systems like this store an estimated ¼ of all terrestrial carbon.
In addition, northern communities depend on a thriving ecosystem to undertake subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing, and trapping and to support the region’s ecologically responsible tourism and outfitting industries. As Churchill is recognized globally for having some of the most unique and accessible wildlife viewing in the world, this is a major local and provincial economic driver (overnight visits to Churchill alone contribute an estimated $21M annually to Manitoba’s economy).
Polar Bear Provincial Park would greatly enhance this opportunity, preserve traditional livelihoods, and maintain the ability of the local tourism industry to sustainably support communities in the long term while greatly helping to protect an iconic yet at-risk Canadian wildlife species. A path forward in this process is one that will ensure the aspirations of First Nations in the proposed park area are supported prior to the establishment of provincial protected areas within their traditional territories.
Formal public consultation has concluded and an official proposal. CPAWS is working to ensure a broad understanding of the benefits that protections in this region would offer.