Fisher Bay bats potential provincial park tourist attraction

March 17, 2010

While Fisher River Chief David Crate and Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), are pleased the province will designate the Ochiwasahow (Fisher Bay) Park Reserve a provincial park by this October, they fear the province won’t expand the park’s boundaries.

“The boundaries proposed by the Fisher River Cree Nation are based on the best marriage of ecological, cultural, and economic considerations,” said Thiessen. “The danger is they may be compromised by a lack of political will within the Manitoba government.”

Fisher River, with CPAWS, raised awareness of one of the species that would benefit from the new boundaries by sponsoring a brown bat presentation by Craig Willis, a wildlife biologist at the University of Winnipeg, for 30 Charles Sinclair school students in Winnipeg last Wednesday.

“There are six bat species in Manitoba, and all are in the Fisher Bay area,” said Willis. “Three go south for the winter and three hibernate in caves. [As many as] 25,000 bats hibernate in a cave near the park area. No people are allowed near the site because bats are sensitive to disturbances.”

Willis dispelled the myth bats are blind, flying rodents, saying they’re more closely related to deer and wolves; they can see with their eyes and use echolocation by bouncing high-pitched ‘screams’ above the range of human hearing to identify their surroundings in the dark.

“Of 4,500 mammals, 1,100 are bats,” said Willis. “Bats provide an ecosystem service, something we’d have to pay for otherwise. They eat one kilo of insects per bat, so in the case of the Fisher Bay cave, that’s 25,000 kilos of insects we’d have to use insecticide to deal with otherwise.”

Willis said the biggest threat bats face is deforestation.

“In the 1700s, there were clouds of migratory red bats,” said Willis. “That’s no more because of the loss of forests. There’s a critical hibernation site and an old growth forest near Fisher Bay that’s great summer habitat for bats.”

Willis believes bats are a tourism and employment opportunity for the community.

“Bat viewing is popular in many parts of the world, especially the southern United States,” said Willis. “In Austin, Texas, there’s a colony of a million and half Brazilian free-tailed bats that roost under bridges in the city. We tend to have smaller concentrations of bats in Manitoba but, because of its proximity to ideal hibernation and summer habitat, Fisher River could provide a chance for bat viewing over the lake on summer nights.”

Chief Crate says the bats’ habitat isn’t included in the park reserve.

“The make up of the original proposal is 75 per cent water,” said Crate. “Since we nominated the smaller area, we’ve asked the province to expand the park to four times the size of Winnipeg and set it aside for permanent protection.”

Crate said the province has proceeded to consult with individuals in the logging and peat moss extraction industries, quota holders and game licence-holders in the area.

The park reserve currently provides temporary protection to approximately 89,000 hectares, which includes the Moose, Little Moose, Tamarack and other islands, shoals, reefs and adjacent mainland.

After analyzing an Areas of Ecological Significance study in 2006, CPAWS and Fisher River requested the province designate the reserve a provincial park and expand the park’s proposed boundaries to include 155,000 hectares.

“We’ve received support from players of all political stripes: Conservative Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan, Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie when he was still an MP, provincial Liberal leader Jon Gerrard and the Green Party,” said Thiessen. “The province has received more than 11,000 letters from Manitobans supporting the park and we’ve had an incredible amount of support from the Jackhead First Nation, Town of Arborg, Village of Riverton and RM of Coldwell.”

An expanded park would gain Fisher River $38 million in ecological and cultural tourism because of its proximity to Winnipeg while respecting Aboriginal and Treaty Rights such as non-commercial traditional First Nations hunting, gathering, fishing and trapping, according to a study released in December.

“The reserve is part of the boreal forest, which is the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon on the planet, which helps slow climate change,” said Thiessen. “I congratulate Chief Crate and his council for their incredible vision to protect the land.”

Crate said continued public support is critical to getting the province to expand the boundaries.

“People can contact James Bezan,” said Crate. “They can also phone our member of the legislative assembly Tom Nevakshonoff.”

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