It’s the time of the year for natural resources graduate students where everyone is scattered across the globe collecting data and conducting field work. For my labmates and me, this means heading to national parks and other protected areas during the throes of tourist season. I recently returned from a trip to Yosemite and tomorrow I pack up my car with field gear and head to Colorado for the next few weeks of research. My roommate just returned from one national park in Alaska and is home for a brief time before heading back to conduct research in two other Alaskan national parks. My labmates and I are not the only ones spending our summer in a national parks. My significant other, Dave, who studies wildlife science and population modeling, is also spending his summer in a national park. However, while most people have heard of the places where I spend my summers, very few people have heard of Wapusk National Park in Manitoba.
Wapusk National Park is located on the Hudson Bay just south of Churchill, Manitoba. Wapusk (which means “white bear” in Cree) was established in 1996 and is Canada’s 37th established National Park. National parks in Canada are managed by Parks Canada, the Canadian equivalent to the National Park Service. Parks Canada mission is to “protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations.”
Wapusk National Park is incredibly remote (I can only communicate with Dave through letters – not email, actual snail-mail letters). Visitors can only access the park via authorized commercial contractors. These contractors run “Tundra Buggies” tours or helicopter tours of the area. What draws people to Wapusk, and why it was most likely established as a national park, are the polar bears. Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of The World” and Wapusk is one of the premier areas in the world to view and photograph polar bears. People who cannot visit Wapusk by tundra buggy or helicopter can learn about the park at the train station in Churchill.
Wapusk National Park is not only home to polar bears (and researchers) but also a variety of amazing arctic wildlife species. Beside the obvious, charismatic megafauna – Wapusk has eiders, snow geese, arctic terns, arctic foxes. Flora-wise, Wapusk is full of typical tundra species including a variety of lichen and berries (including bearberry which has leaves that turn bright red in the fall).
Being that my research is based in visitor management, out of curiosity I tracked down the general management plan (GMP) for Wapusk and skimmed their section on visitor management. Currently Wapusk does not have a visitor management “problem” per se as they receive very few visitors per year. But low visitation could be viewed as a problem since part of Parks Canada’s mandate requires the agency to promote public enjoyment of Canada’s natural places.
The last general management plan was approved in 2007, and included a substantial section on increasing opportunities for visitation in Wapusk. Specifically, the GMP mentioned the establishment of guided hikes and overnight stays through the park, creating opportunities to experience the park by dog sled, and summer canoe trips on the Owl River. At the time of writing this, none of those opportunities had become general practice for Wapusk according to the Parks Canada website. Currently, visitor impacts do not appear to be a problem in Wapusk and their GMP emphasizes that in order to ensure the continued protection of such a fragile ecosystem, all visitors to Wapusk must be accompanied by a guide.
Very few people can say that they’ve visited Wapusk National Park but the park appears to want to take measures to increase accessibly and visitor opportunities. For now though, if you’d like to visit Wapusk and have the chance to see a polar bear it will have to be by tundra buggy, helicopter, or research grant.