Parks Canada wants to allow researchers, soldiers and some aboriginals to carry shotguns in the country's northernmost national parks to better protect themselves against possible violent encounters with polar bears.
The proposal comes as public and scientific interest in the North are on the rise and as the federal government boosts defence patrols with the aim of asserting Canada's Arctic sovereignty. Certain groups of people have been permitted to carry firearms in national parks frequented by polar bears under a two-year-old pilot project. Now Parks Canada wants to entrench that right in an update of its wild animals regulations, last revised in 1997.
If adopted, the firearm rule would apply to 10 national parks in the territories. Rob Prosper, executive director of northern parks, said permits would only be given to those who know how to handle a shotgun and are certified to use one. Regular visitors would be prohibited from carrying weapons.
Mr. Prosper noted polar bears present a greater risk to people than grizzlies or black bears. Although he didn't have statistics available, he said park visitors have experienced conflicts with the large white-furred mammal. No one has died.
"The experience in the Arctic over the years is that an interaction between a polar bear and a human is a significantly elevated risk," Mr. Prosper said. "Polar bears don't necessarily differentiate between seals and humans."
The consultation period for Parks Canada's proposed regulatory changes began Thursday and closes at the end of this year. Most of the changes involve clarifying rules and slight enhancements to wildlife protection.
For example, visitors already aren't allowed to touch, feed or disturb animals in national parks. Under new rules, they'd also be banned from moving, harassing or harming them.
Parks Canada also wants to toughen regulations around food, said Catherine Dumouchel, the federal agency's manager of policy. People using national parks for the day to hike, canoe or picnic will be expected to follow the same food-storage rules as campers do: They won't be allowed to leave food unattended unless it's in an animal-proof container or fastened high on a pole.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society hasn't had a chance to review the proposed changes but noted an update was needed.
"There's been a whole series of new national parks created, particularly in the North," said Alison Woodley, the organization's national conservation director.
While interest in far northern parks is increasing, they remain significantly less popular than their easily accessible southern counterparts. Canada's oldest national park – Banff in Alberta – draws about four million visitors a year. In northern parks where polar bears roam, visitors range from about 10 to a few thousand, Mr. Prosper said.