Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa, province join to protect bears

But no new funding involved

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Parks Canada and the Manitoba government are pooling their resources to protect one of the world's largest polar bear denning areas near Churchill.

Ottawa and the province announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Monday, allowing them to essentially treat Wapusk National Park and the adjacent provincially controlled Churchill Wildlife Management Area (WMA) as one ecosystem.

No new funding accompanied the announcement, which will disappoint environmentalists and academics working in the field.

However, the two governments insist they will be able to carry out more research and monitoring of polar bears and other species by combining their efforts in the region.

"It's really an agreement to collaborate and make better use of existing resources," Premier Greg Selinger said in an interview from Churchill Monday.

Both governments said the agreement will standardize protocols for rescuing and rehabilitating orphan polar bear cubs and investigating polar bear deaths. It will also speed licensing for tourism operations, boost research into polar bear and caribou habitats and address the effects of climate change on bear habitat and behaviour, they said.

Cam Elliott, superintendent of Wapusk National Park, said the MOU will allow researchers to carry out projects neither government could afford on its own.

As a result of the deal, the monitoring of polar bear dens will be expanded, he said. Typically, surveys of denning areas are carried out in late February and March, around the time mother bears emerge with their cubs.

Now, dens will also be surveyed in December and January to better track cub losses. (Polar bear females leave dens earlier if they do not give birth or their cubs die shortly after birth.)

Neither Ottawa nor the province was able to provide a copy of the MOU before deadline on Monday.

Ryan Brook, a University of Saskatchewan professor who studies polar bear habitat, said "it makes total sense" for the two governments to co-operate to treat the large remote area as a single ecosystem.

Brook, interviewed before the two governments confirmed they would be spending no new money as a part of the MOU, said new funding would be essential for the collaboration to accomplish a whole lot, though.

"It's great to talk about collaboration -- and I think that's critical -- but obviously for it to be remotely successful it has to be backed by new money to make these new initiatives work," he said.

An official with a Winnipeg-based environmental organization put it more bluntly.

With no new money and in the absence of a detailed plan, it appears the announcement is little more than "window-dressing," said Eric Reder, Manitoba director with the Wilderness Committee. He also noted Parks Canada has endured staff and budget cuts recently.

Reder wondered whether the announcement wasn't linked to recent speculation about shipping oil through the Port of Churchill. "Are they demonstrating their ecological resolve based upon the feedback, the negativity that has come with that hare-brained scheme?" he said.

The rail line that would carry tanker cars to the port forms the western boundary of the 850,000-hectare Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Several streams that run through the WMA also flow into the national park. There is concern about what kind of response time there would be in the event of a spill in the remote region.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 A4

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