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This article was published 5/8/2016 (1108 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Pallister government hopes further consultations will melt away continued opposition to a polar bear provincial park in the north.
The plan for a designated, protected park along the coastline of the Hudson Bay near Churchill was first announced in the 2013 throne speech under the former NDP government. The park was seen not only as a way to boost tourism in the area, but as a means to protect the denning habitat of the polar bears and caribou habitat. At least 128 bird species also breed in the area.
Unlike many other decisions made under the Selinger government, a polar bear park is one the Progressive Conservatives wholeheartedly support.
"The long term sustainability of polar bears is important to Manitobans and definitely important to all of us, so we want to move forward with it, in conjunction with First Nations people," Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox told the Free Press Thursday.
'The long-term sustainability of polar bears is important to Manitobans'
First Nations in the area were stunned when the announcement was made in 2013, as they had not been consulted, explained War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy. Several First Nations, including War Lake, Fox Lake, Shamattawa and York Factory First Nations, are located in the area and had concerns over what the designation would mean for trappers and hunters.
Briefing materials on the park provided to Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox outline that to this day the department has had difficulties in "engaging the First Nations in the process."
A 29,000 square-kilometre (7.2 million acres) area, south of Churchill, west of Wapusk National Park, and along the northwest shoreline of the Hudson Bay is currently being studied as a location for the proposed 1.4 million acre park. There are between 900 and 1,000 polar bears in the western Hudson Bay.
Kennedy told the Free Press hunters and trappers in the area provide food for the remote First Nation, located almost 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Kennedy is concerned that a designated, protected area could hinder their use of the land. It is a point echoed by the Manitoba Wildlife Federation, an organization dedicated to the sustainable use of fish and wildlife.
"I think there really needs to be a study and also to have the aboriginal communities involved, to listen to what they have to say," Kennedy said. "One of the reasons I am hesitant of a polar bear park is that at most parks there is no hunting allowed."
Hunting in provincial parks is subject to specific regulations and varies from park to park. Since the area is already protected as a wildlife management area, the Federation sees the designation as bringing additional restrictions on hunting and trapping, explained Rob Olson, the managing director.
A third round of consultation is set to begin shortly with First Nations, the town of Churchill and other stakeholders, but Cox says the government has no specific timeline for when they want the designation in place.
"We realize that we need to move cautiously, and have those consultations with First Nations, they need to be part of these discussions," Cox said.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society supports the protection of the region, provided there is full consultation with First Nations communities. Joshua Pearlman, a spokesman for the nationwide charity, notes there is significant value to the area that needs protection. The organization is dedicated to the protection of public land and water
On top of protecting polar bear dens, the study area contains the largest wetland on the continent and feeds rivers which flowing into parts of the Hudson Bay which is the summer habitat for the beluga whale population, Pearlman noted in an email statement.
"The integrity of the landscape and wildlife populations on it are critical to the successful eco-tourism industry in northern Manitoba," Pearlman said. "Of the tourism industry value in the province it is the incredible, unique opportunities for nature based experiences in the Hudson Bay region that garners the greatest global renown."
Mining or the development of oil, petroleum, natural gas or hydro-electric power is restricted under most categories of provincial park, which has drawn concern from the Mining Association of Manitoba.
The association argues the study area overlaps areas that have a strong potential for diamond development. The industry is calling for a "balanced approach" and the restoration of mineral rights to the area, which were withdrawn in December of 2013 when study began.
"The interim withdrawal of mineral rights casts a huge uncertainty for the mining industry," said a spokeswoman in a prepared statement. "Manitoba has the potential to unlock additional resource potential in the North East corner of Manitoba as well as set programs in place to ensure the vitality of Manitoba's polar bear population."
Cox said once the location is chosen, the mineral rights will be restored to the area outside the park's boundaries.
Updated on Friday, August 5, 2016 at 7:42 AM CDT: Photo added