Polar bear politics heat up in Churchill after province quietly gives company new permits
First Nations, environmentalists decry move that ended decades-long moratorium
Polar bears and politics are causing a chill in Churchill after the Manitoba government quietly increased the number of special permits available to access the bears for the first time in decades.
It's a move slammed by some tour operators and local First Nations who say the process lacked transparency and could hurt the area's fragile ecosystem.
Last year, Lazy Bear Expeditions was given two permits allowing it to use Churchill Wildlife Management Area's offroad trail network — and it seems no one in Churchill was consulted or informed new permits might be up for grabs.
New permits for this network, which is widely seen as the best way for tourists to see the most polar bears in western Hudson Bay, hadn't been issued since 1984.
"We're extremely disappointed in the government's actions," said John Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures. "I just don't understand. I'm stunned."
'Two sets of rules'
Frontiers North held 12 of the historic 18 tundra vehicle permits for decades, and says it earned these permits by investing millions of dollars into its business to help grow polar bear tourism for the North.
A limit of 18 permits was established by the government in 1984, under the wildlife management plan for Churchill, to preserve the ecosystem and tourist experience.
Gunter says there was no warning the government was considering expanding the permit system. Instead, he got a call from a government official in 2020 saying Lazy Bear was getting two permits.
The owner of Lazy Bear, Wally Daudrich, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Daudrich ran for the federal Conservatives in the Churchill riding in 2011.
He is an annual donor to the Progressive Conservatives, giving the maximum amount of $5,000 in 2019, according to Elections Manitoba's annual returns.
"It seems like there is two sets of rules," Gunter said, "and I'm not sure why that's the case."
Tour operator takes government, Lazy Bear to court
Fox Lake Cree Nation, whose traditional lands include the southern portion of the Churchill wildlife management area, also say they weren't informed about the new permits.
"There was no consultation with our resource management board or our community that share these traditional lands," Chief Morris Beardy said in a prepared statement.
"Indigenous communities must be part of decisions that affect our territories, and our communities must be part of opportunities to promote and expand tourism in the north."
The Churchill Wildlife Management Area is a controlled zone that buffers Wapusk National Park. Visitor activity within the area is heavily restricted and a permit is required to use the offroad network where a tundra vehicle is used.
Each of these highly coveted permits translates into how many tundra vehicles a company can operate in the area at a given time.
The other company with access to these permits, Great White Bear Tours, took the government to court last year in a bid to get Lazy Bear's permits revoked.
It filed an application on March 12, 2020, against the government and Lazy Bear, asking the court to revoke the permits because they were issued in "discriminatory, biased and unfair manner."
Representatives from Great White said they could not comment on this story as the matter is still before the courts. There is no hearing date set for a judge to hear the application.
Caleb Ross, a smaller operator of polar bear tours, has owned Nanuk Operations for five years. His permits only allow him to take tourists to some parts of the area using the established road system.
He found out through the grapevine that Lazy Bear had been given two permits, and said there was no communication with the other operators.
"It was surprising and a bit disappointing that the rest of us weren't given the option," he said.
Some support expansion
Not everyone in Churchill is opposed to the expansion of the permit system.
Dennis Compayre, a polar bear tracker in the area for 40 years, says he welcomes a breakup of the monopoly held by the other two companies.
"Daudrich is a very hard-working man in Churchill, and he was trying to break into the business, but of course the door was slammed shut in his face," Compayre said. "These two companies enjoy great liberties and benefits that no one else has."
Compayre spends most of his days lately with a documentary film crew and was the recent star of CBC's Kingdom of the Polar Bears.
WATCH | Dennis Compayre with polar bears in Churchill:
He says on any given day, not all 18 permits are being used, so if Daudrich is out with his two tundra vehicles, it won't really change the original intent of the cap.
"They have control of this huge parcel of land that they don't use," he said.
Reviewing Churchill's tourism sector: province
The wildlife management plan for Churchill, which was last updated in 2013, capped the number of tundra vehicles allowed to operate in the area at 18 because of "concerns regarding the impact of this vehicle traffic on the vegetation and wetlands."
Special permits can be issued in certain circumstances. However, the plan dictates the special permits are not for services connected with tourism "in fairness to applicants who have been denied the opportunity to offer services in the WMA [Wildlife Management Area]."
Manitoba's Wildlife Branch was moved last year to the agriculture portfolio from Conservation.
A request for an interview with Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen was denied.
In a prepared statement by the department, a spokesperson said the ecotourism sector of Churchill has "grown and evolved" since the original permit restrictions were introduced.
The spokesperson said the government is reviewing the entire tourism sector in Churchill, including whether the current permitting system is working.
He said consultations with Indigenous groups were not required when it comes to the use of a WMA as it "does not affect the exercise of Treaty or Indigenous rights."
Gunter, who has been with Frontiers North since the 2000s, argues now is not the time to be adding more traffic to an ecosystem that is already facing global warming and diminished bear sightings.
2015 review says no to more offroad vehicles
A 2015 independent review ordered by the previous NDP government looked at Churchill's tourism capacity.
It ultimately recommended the current number of allowable vehicles be maintained, in order to mitigate further environmental factors that could impact the numbers of bears in the area.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) said it is "highly concerned" the government is choosing to go against the management plan for the area.
"We've been informed that there was no scientific assessment or consultations with local communities associated with this decision that may very well pose additional challenges to this threatened species," said Ron Thiessen, executive director of the group's Manitoba chapter.
The nationwide charity has long championed the establishment of a designated, protected park — dubbed Polar Bear provincial park — to replace the area that encompasses the wildlife management area.
"It presents a sterling opportunity to protect the terrestrial habitats polar bears need to give birth and raise their young," he said.