New Research Centre and Exhibit at Assiniboine Park Zoo will support International Polar Bear Conservation efforts

Laura Curtis
Assiniboine Park Conservancy

Wapusk News - Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 2011

Architectural rendering of the planned “Journey to Churchill” exhibit
© Assiniboine Park Conservancy

A gateway to Churchill and Wapusk National Park in the middle of Winnipeg? That is the plan currently in development for the new Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. As part of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s overall $200 million redevelopment plan, approximately 10 acres of the zoo will be devoted to the Journey to Churchill exhibit which will feature the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC), the Aurora Borealis theatre, an underwater viewing area for seals and polar bears, as well as a new restaurant, gift shop, and children’s play area.

Architectural rendering of the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre Architectural rendering of the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre
© Assiniboine Park Conservancy

The IPBCC, which is scheduled to open late fall 2011, will serve a variety of functions, including: offering public education about polar bears and the impact of climate change on their survival; housing research programs focused on northern wildlife; and housing and transitioning orphaned cubs when deemed necessary by Manitoba Conservation. Through amendments to the Polar Bear Protection Act the IPBCC can receive polar bear cubs that are found within the Polar Bear Alert Program Area control zones and which would otherwise not survive in the wild. These bears will be moved to the IPBCC and from there to other facilities to act as ambassadors for Churchill, Manitoba and the species.

Advising the management of the IPBCC is a Committee of eight people representing the zoo, the province of Manitoba, and other stakeholders including Wapusk National Park. Marilyn Peckett, Superintendent, Manitoba Field Unit, Parks Canada, is the first Chairperson of this committee. “As the oldest parks service in the world, Parks Canada has amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience, offering proven international leadership in conservation,” says Marilyn. “We are honoured to collaborate in an advisory role with the IPBCC and share the mutual objective of connecting people to our special places, like Wapusk National Park.”

Artic fox Artic fox
© Parks Canada

The Journey to Churchill exhibit is scheduled to open in October 2013 and is designed to recreate a journey from the boreal forest to the coast of Hudson Bay. The journey starts at Wapusk National Park, a section that exhibits animals typically found in Wapusk including caribou, arctic fox, snowy owl, and polar bears.

The journey continues through the Gateway to the Arctic Building that will showcase the marine mammals of the region and the Aboriginal and northern communities of Manitoba. Visitors will then proceed past a larger enclosure for polar bears and finish this part of their zoo experience in a gathering place that is meant to evoke Churchill itself. Throughout the entire journey there will be elements that entice zoo visitors to visit the North and see the animals and landscape in person. “Our goal is to connect people with Churchill using this unique exhibit so they will be able to get an up close and personal experience,” says Tim Sinclair-Smith, Director of Zoological Operations. “We hope to educate the public by telling a story that will give them some insight into the wildlife and environment of the region and the challenges they face”.

The entire exhibit is also designed to get visitors to think about their actions and make positive changes that will help preserve northern ecosystems. This will be done through interpretive materials that highlight current concerns about climate change and habitat degradation. The exhibit also draws attention to research that is being conducted within the zoo, at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and at field sites within Wapusk. Additional research plans are under development to include sea ice studies in collaboration with the University of Manitoba, studies of animal behaviour, and development of non-invasive methods to learn about wild populations. “Among other things, the IPBCC and Journey to Churchill present an amazing opportunity to develop research techniques that can then be used in the field,” says Stephen Petersen, Head of Conservation and Research for the Assiniboine Park Zoo. “In the past I have been involved in research that used non-invasively collected scat samples to learn about animal movements. In the zoo we could validate some of these methods before spending a lot of money to implement the technique in the field.”

This re-development is anticipated to make the Assiniboine Park and the Assiniboine Park Zoo a source of pride for all Manitobans, an international centre for conservation and research, and a starting place for visitors to explore the natural wonders of Manitoba. Assiniboine Park Zoo’s goal as a result of the re-development plans is not only to attract more visitors to the zoo but also to promote the natural treasures that can be found by visiting Wapusk National Park and Churchill.