UNESCO declares largest biosphere reserve in North America

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Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve is the first such reserve in northern Canada and the first to be led entirely by indigenous communities.

UNESCO declares largest biosphere reserve in North America
  • The new biosphere reserve encompasses Great Bear Lake and its surrounding watershed in Canada's Northwest Territories.
  • Great Bear Lake is the world's eighth-largest lake, and one of its most pristine.
  • The designation was made to reflect the region's ecological significance and the efforts by indigenous communities to protect it in the face of climate change.

This weekend saw the designation of 20 new UNESCO biosphere reserves around the world. Included in these is the brand new Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve, the first in northern Canada and the first to be led entirely by indigenous communities.

Far into Canada’s Northwest Territories lies Great Bear Lake. At 3.2 million hectares in size (bigger than Belgium), it is the eighth-largest lake in the world – so big, in fact, that it generates its own weather systems. It’s also one of the world’s last remaining pristine great lakes, providing important habitat to four species of fish despite the fact that it straddles the arctic boundary and is covered in ice nine months of the year.

The surrounding land that drains into the lake – called a watershed – supports woodland caribou, wolves, grizzly bears, muskox, and many other species. The indigenous Délı̨nę Got’ınę also call the area home; they live in the village of Délı̨nę, which sits on the southwestern shore of Great Bear Lake.

Concerned by the effects of climate change, Délı̨nę community members have been developing plans to mitigate and adapt to ecological shifts as their world warms. For instance they established a caribou conservation plan for a local herd that has been experiencing a severe decline.

To reflect the efforts of the Délı̨nę Got’ınę to protect the land, water, and wildlife of their territory, Great Bear Lake and its surrounding watershed was awarded the title of Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve on March 19 in Lima, Peru. Tsá Túé encompasses more than 9.3 million hectares, making it the largest UNESCO biosphere reserve in North America.

Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve comprises Great Bear Lake, its surrounding watershed, and several protected areas and territories where indigenous communities hold official rights to the land and its management.
Tsá Túé International Biosphere Reserve comprises Great Bear Lake, its surrounding watershed, and several protected areas and territories to which indigenous communities hold official rights to the land and its management.
Délı̨nę, on the shores of Great Bear Lake. Photo by Pat Kane.
Délı̨nę, on the shores of Great Bear Lake. Photo by Pat Kane.

“The leaders and Elders have always stressed that Great Bear Lake is the source of life for Délı̨ nę,” said Michael Neyelle, chair of the Tsá Túé Stewardship Council. “Elders refer to the lake as our freezer because it takes care of our food. They have been very adamant about protecting it in any way possible. The international biosphere reserve designation is another way to help us be a voice for Great Bear Lake.”

While the new designation does not confer any additional protections for the region, it is expected to attract more research and monitoring attention from the scientific community, as well as making Great Bear Lake more of a tourism destination.

“I’m really looking forward to what the future holds for Délı̨nę,” Neyelle said. “The International Biosphere Reserve status will help us to incorporate the traditional knowledge of our Elders in preserving the watershed for future generations. We want visitors to join us in enjoying this beautiful environment.”

In addition to Tsá Túé, 19 other biosphere reserves were declared during the Lima meeting, bringing the global tally up to 669 sites across 120 countries.

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