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Bigger Than Yellowstone, Canada Park to Protect Cultures, Creatures

Hannah Hoag in Montreal, Canada
for National Geographic News
October 20, 2006
 
With the flourish of a pen and a fire ceremony, Canada's government and
Indian groups agreed last week to create a vast national park in the
Northwest Territories on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake (cant">Northwest Territories map).

The plan cordons off an area of about 13,000 square miles (33,500 square kilometers)—almost four times the area of the United States' Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone map).

Canadian environment minister Rona Ambrose visited the tiny Dene Indian community of Lutsel K'e, where she signed and celebrated a "memorandum of understanding" with Chief Adeline Jonasson.

(Related: " Canada's Huge New Preserve Protects Rare 'Spirit Bears'" [March 1, 2006].)

Tenth Largest Lake

Great Slave Lake is the fifth largest lake in North America and the tenth largest in the world. Scientists believe its eastern arm was created when the Churchill and the Slave geological regions drifted apart over millions of years.

The proposed park, which has yet to be named, connects evergreen-rich forests to rolling, mossy, treeless plains farther north.

"This is where you have a dramatic transition from the woodlands of the northern reaches of the boreal forest out onto the tundra," said Kevin McNamee, director of parks establishment for Parks Canada.

Conservation groups are applauding the announcement. "It is a crucible for wildlife," said Monte Hummel, president emeritus of the Toronto, Ontario-based nonprofit WWF-Canada.

Wildlife Haven

The cool deep waters of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake are stocked with trout, whitefish, and arctic grayling. Bald eagles and other birds of prey nest in towering cliffs, while nesting gulls, terns, and ducks occupy rocky islands.

The land to the north and east is home to moose, bears, foxes, wolves, wolverines, martins, minks, otters, and perhaps most important, caribou (caribou photos, video, and facts).

"The caribou are the lifeblood of the area," said Ray Griffith, a consultant with WWF-Canada who lived in Lutsel K'e for 32 years. The animals winter in the forest in the East Arm region and migrate east and north to their calving ground in the territory of Nunavut.

In the past, the Lutsel K'e Dene relied on the caribou for food, clothing, and shelter. The animals remain a key source of food and have cultural significance for the community.

The park would protect the Dene's interest in the caribou, in part by protecting the animals' habitat, which is being encroached on by industry.

"This is one of the large areas of the boreal forest that is still largely intact," said Larry Innes, acting director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, based in Ottawa, Ontario.

"It has been nibbled a bit with diamond-mining activity and uranium exploration. But the vast majority is as it was and has been for thousands of years."

WWF-Canada's Hummel echoed the sentiment. "The region is still pristine, but on the cusp of development," he said.

Diamond Rush

Areas near Great Slave Lake have recently been the subject of enthusiastic diamond exploration.

Canada's first diamond was discovered in 1991 on the shores of Lac de Gras, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Lutsel K'e.

The find sparked the largest rush to stake claims in Canada's history. Within two years diamond interests claimed more than 50 million acres (22 million hectares). Canada's diamond industry is now worth the equivalent of more than 1.8 billion U.S. dollars, and it continues to grow.

Roller Coaster

The Eastern Arm of Great Slave Lake has a tumultuous conservation history.

Parks Canada first identified the region as a possible park in 1970, but resistance from local Indian groups derailed the talks.

The First Nations groups, as Indians are called in Canada, feared the establishment of a park would interfere with their fishing rights. The Canada National Parks Act now permits local aboriginal people to continue their traditional hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering within a protected region.

Though the park's official boundaries have yet to be drawn, the amount of land in the new proposal is more than four times what was proposed in the '70s.

The new agreement requires that the Lutsel K'e Dene and Parks Canada complete a feasibility study—including ecological, cultural, and resource assessments—over the next three years. The studies will determine what shape and size the park finally takes.

The Lutsel K'e hope to call the park Thaydene Nene—"land of the ancestors"—National Park.

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