How big is six-and-a-half million acres? Think of a community a hundred miles away from you. That’s how wide a square would be from one side to the other that encompassed six-and-a-half million acres. Now imagine it without any highways or roads of any kind. Or towns. And imagine its rivers flowing to the sea without any dams and its lakes free of development and jet-skis. Imagine it with herds of migrating caribou crossing its open expanses in fall and spring, pods of beluga whales nosing into its estuaries in summer, and flocks of seaducks, geese, loons, shorebirds, and songbirds along its shorelines and in its peatlands, scrub, and forests from spring through fall.
You don’t have to just imagine it anymore.
With little fanfare, the Inuit people of Nunavik in northern Quebec, the Grand Council of the Cree, and the Government of Quebec announced the creation of Tursujuq National Park—a 6.5 million acre protected area along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay. Not only is this remarkable for its size—it’s the largest protected area in eastern North America and one of the top 10 largest parks on the continent—but perhaps even more incredible is that the park is several million acres larger than it had been expected to be a few years ago. In today’s world we have grown to expect to see the amount of land protected whittled down from what is often originally proposed by Aboriginal communities and others. But exactly the opposite occurred here; Quebec government officials listened and agreed with the Inuit and Cree communities of the region.
Within the new national park are “cuestas,” long ridges with cliff faces that are nesting sites for peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and rough-legged hawks and support thriving communities of rare plants, mosses, and lichens. Virtually the entire length and watershed of the Nastapoka River is now protected within the park (the river was once on the list for a series of large dams as part of a proposed hydroelectric project) along with several other river systems. This network of rivers and streams weave together a wetland fabric of marshes, peatlands, ponds, and lakes culminating in Lacs des Loups Marins (Seal Lakes) and Quebec’s second largest lake, Lacs à l’Eau-Claire (Clearwater Lake), a lake formed by an ancient massive meteor strike. The river coming out of Lacs à l’Eau-Claire flows into an amazing brackish estuary called Tasiujaq in the Inuit language, Lac Guillaume-Delisle in French, or Richmond Gulf in English. The estuary drains into the sea through one narrow opening, and at each change of tide, an immense volume of water flows through. In the summer, the shockingly white beluga whales come to these waters to find sanctuary. They molt their old skin before the cold, dark winter sets in.
These waterways and wetlands are home to many more special species. The threatened eastern races of both harlequin duck and Barrow’s goldeneye are found here in summer, presumably nesting, though the limited ornithological exploration of the area has yet to confirm this. Black scoters and long-tailed ducks can be seen along the ocean shores. The Tasiujac estuary and the marine shoreline are used by a little known form of the common eider, a sea duck whose sub specific name, “sedantarius,” hints at what makes it so unusual. These birds do not migrate south to ice-free waters like most of their brethren during winter, but remain in the leads of open water between shifting ice packs.
Songbirds, too, come to Tursujuq’s wild lands each summer to raise their young. Blackpoll warblers, after a winter spent in the Amazon Basin, head to brushy thickets where they can quickly raise a brood in the short summers. The gray-cheeked thrush and the northern waterthrush come from the Caribbean and Central America. Others, like the common redpoll and the pine grosbeak, barely migrate as far south as the northern U.S. in winter. In total, at least 131 bird species frequent the region.
The new park is also part of a migration corridor and wintering area for caribou. Given the drastic declines in both the Leaf River and George River caribou herds of northern Quebec, the park is expected to have great benefit for these animals.
The most astonishing animal surprise of Tursujuq is its resident race of freshwater harbor seals. Apparently landlocked for thousands of years, these seals somehow find enough open water and food through the winter for survival. Almost as odd is Tursujuq’s isolated population of land-locked Atlantic salmon. They are at least 500 miles from the nearest known population of the species.
Tursujuq National Park will be managed by the local Katavik Regional Government, and the Inuit and Cree communities will continue to practice a subsistence lifestyle here. The cooperative effort and vision among the Inuit of Nunavik, the Grand Council of the Cree, the Government of Quebec, and conservation advocates have ensured the future of this global treasure, and are a model for leaders around the world.
Jeff Wells is a science adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international boreal forest protection work. He received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.