What Manitoba Taught Me About Conservation

If you could only save one thing in nature, what would it be?

By: Rachel B + Save to a List

Conservation can be a daunting challenge given the lengthy list of endangered species, threats to ecosystems and pressures the environment faces on a daily basis.

The importance of protecting wild places and the impact these places have is understood by almost every single country out there, which is why setting up national parks or monuments are paramount in conservation and protecting the wilderness for future generations. For Riding Mountain National Park, a Manitoba park since 1930, the park has been inspiring Canadian thought leaders on conservation since its inception.

The creation of the park shares a historical resemblance to many parks in Western Canada. Formally a timber reserve, the park received infrastructure upgrades as part of a relief work project during the 1930s depression years in which young, single and unemployed men engaged in hard labour in exchange for room and board. It is slightly ironic that the building of Canadian parks destined to conserve our heritage and landscape was built on the backs of vulnerable young men with an unsustainable wage of 20 cents per day.

A year after its inception, conservationist Grey Owl made his way into Riding Mountain to study the beaver. Despite falsely identifying himself as a First Nation, Archibald Belaney better known as Grey Owl was already a famous conservationist when he settled into a small cabin within the park and began to forge ideas related to the near extinction of Canada’s beaver, as well as the threat to Canada’s forests and ecosystems.

Grey Owl’s time in the solitude of nature gave him the time to ponder the pressures of progress and subsequent stripping of wild places. His mission was to find a way to educate the masses and convince them that an untamed natural environment was essential to the Canadian identity.  

Ask any Canadian now what it means to be Canadian, and at least half of us will mention our wild spaces. Eighty years on, Grey Owl’s mission still seems to resonate.

Today, the forested escarpment of Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park is visible from miles away.  Much like the grain elevators that rest along the train routes in this wheat farming part of the country, the sharp hill that occupies Riding Mountain National Park rises as an anomaly to a softly rolling landscape. Easily spotted, the treasures of the park lie within the mass of thick leaves and dense bush. Golden ashes, green spruce and white barked birch still stand in great numbers considering the area is a historic timber field which was used by Manitoba’s early settlers.

Before the time of Grey Owl, the closest city was Winnipeg and it was one of Canada's wealthiest cities. Great sacrifices were made to the land. Timber was cleared for houses and to make way for fields. To hasten the speed of progress, fires were set to the forests in the nearby wilderness to create better grassland growth to support livestock and grain.

Slowly but surely the wild land of the North was tamed. The natural residents of this area, the elk, deer, moose and bison were hunted en masse and as natural habitats dwindled, so too did the herds.

But animals left in wild places can adapt. And if given time, can thrive again.

My time in Riding Mountain coincided with the elk rut, where bugles - a high pitched squeal used to attract a mate - can be heard bouncing across the horizon as the sun dips out of sight. The designation of the protected area that makes up Riding Mountain allows the elk to continue to live in this region, albeit the fact the animal has adapted to enjoy a snack on the neighbouring hay bales that sit just outside the park’s boundaries.

Besides that unmistakable screechy call of the wild, the park’s attractions reach a pinnacle with the bison herd at Lady Audy, an enclosure where a few dozen bison reside after being reintroduced from Elk Island National Park in the 1940s.

Threats to this reintroduced species are real. TB ran rampant and ended up destroying the entire first herd introduced in the 30s from Wainwright, Alberta. Bovine Tuberculosis came back in the 90s and as such the park has to monitor each animal every three years to ensure it hasn’t caught it again. But the balance in protecting these animals isn’t just limited to ensuring they don’t catch TB.

In a conversation with an artist in residence with Parks Canada, she expressed concerns about the oversight of smaller animals in the desire to save these large mammals. Concerns of the consequences of the cull, the slaughter of excess bison when the numbers reach over a limit that can sustain such large creatures in a pen of 500 acres.

By using multimedia art, she has started on a multi-year journey documenting these magnificent creatures and redefining the idea of what art means to the national parks. What effects even the smallest of actions have, even if that action is supposed to be in the name of preservation. Art in this capacity is not just watercolours and landscapes but a way to express an engaging idea about how better to save our wild places.

The question of at what costs do we access to parks versus let them remain wild remained in the forefront of my mind as I strolled the cobblestone pathways of the resort town of Wasagaming, situated within the park boundaries. Questions of which animal is most worthy of saving in limited budgets arose while I searched out across the smooth waters of Clear Lake, looking for the beaver dens whose importance Grey Owl once fought so hard to protect.  Also, questions of the costs of progress to society as I walked beneath the beloved pines to a log cabin in the woods made from that same timber.

The truth is there is no perfect recipe for conservation. Unless we return to a society of feudalism, there will always be flaws in our policies. The burden of our demand on nature will always be heavy.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight to try to save as much as we can. To reserve wild spaces across the variety of landscapes and ecosystems so that we still have places to escape to that resemble how nature was intended.

Afterall, it is worth remembering the words of Grey Owl, “you belong to nature, not it to you’.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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