A fleeting opportunity to conserve the greatest intact watershed in Manitoba



Photographer Andy Murch's image of curious beluga whales in the waters of Hudson Bay is featured in the 2017 CPAWS Boreal Wilderness Calendar.

The waters that drain into these areas are sourced from roughly 1.4 million square kilometres of the North American landscape (about twice the size of Alberta), a region that includes concentrated development as well as large areas of intact Boreal forest.

Conserving the habitat shared by belugas, and a long list of other species, will depend in part on the health of these upstream regions where waters (both healthy and contaminated) are sourced. The flow that connects all corners of a watershed provides a strong justification for looking at entire watersheds when considering conservation priorities.

The Nelson and Churchill rivers all funnel water to the Hudson Bay coast of Manitoba and their watersheds extend across as many as four provinces and four states. Balancing the priorities of multiple governing bodies can create great challenges in landscape management. As the Seal River watershed falls almost entirely within Manitoba, it offers a conservation opportunity that is far less complicated than addressing a watershed that overlaps several political jurisdictions.

Before us is a unique opportunity for proactive habitat management with incredible potential for the people that use this land, the wildlife that still thrives here, and in contributing to Manitoba's climate plan by maintaining natural soil carbon storage capacity on a large scale.

At over 49,000 km2 (an area larger than the state of Mississippi), the Seal watershed overlaps with the traditional use areas of at least four First Nations as well as Inuit. It also forms much of the wintering grounds of the Quamanirjuak central barren ground caribou herd that, like the belugas, has been key to the survival of people in this region for thousands of years. The region is healthy, biologically-diverse and continues to support traditional Indigenous land use practices. Despite little formal protection (three provincial parks and one ecological reserve do overlap with portions of the watershed), the area is so far, largely untouched by industrial development.

As technology and access to remote regions improves, industrial development interests in these regions is increasing. If not carefully planned with the goal of keeping the watershed ecologically fully functioning, industrial development and their associated road networks can fragment the Boreal landscape and create negative impacts both locally and downstream. Ensuring Indigenous communities lead in planning for the future of this region will secure the land use is in the best interests of those that live on it.