Polar Bear Blog – More Bears, Less People

Well, its been a while but time to start blogging again since, after all, it is that time of year where bears and bear tourists slowly overtake Churchill until its one big snowball of chaos and shuttle buses in early November. So, before too many bears get to Churchill… and before I get up to Churchill… here’s an update for what’s been up with the bears this year…

This spring there were definite signs of a late summer (mind you, it wasn’t expected to start in September…) but March was colder than normal not just in Churchill but across much of Hudson Bay. By late March and April temperatures normalized and storms moving through the area, including the one (actually two) that ultimately cancelled the Hudson Bay Quest dog sled race mid-way, did open up leads or cracks in the ice along Hudson Bay.

The combination of early cooler temperatures followed by open leads would have essentially created a ‘perfect storm’ for Churchill’s bears. Polar bears do the vast majority of their feeding in the spring, essentially from April until mid-July. This is a combination of breaking into seal birthlairs for seal pups and hunting seals too young to really know the rules of survival.

Back in June, the Churchill River did not ‘break’, the term given when the last ice jam opens up and flows out with the tide, until June 16. For years, the port of Churchill has kept records of break-up and 2009 tied for the latest breakup in the last fifty years. A cool summer further contributed to a good, long ice season for the bears.

There were several bears encounters in and around the town of Churchill this summer, with gun shots peppering the blue dusk of mid-summer. It sounds like this wave of activity was the result of two events. One, naturally, being the break-up of Hudson Bay, as the ice begins to disperse some bears, usually younger ones, head off straightaway, others ride it out to the end and still others, usually females head off at almost designated spots, the closest to their favoured summering areas.

This year looks good for bears, not so much for tourists, at least tourist numbers anyway. From the sounds of it, some tour companies are down as much as 30% in bookings so that probably means for any stragglers, there is still a chance to get in some late season bookings/deals… not usual that you hear deal and Churchill in the same sentence.

As for the bears, there are already two or three out in Buggyland and given the late ice season, all the bears look to be in very good shape. There is a lot of talk that this could be one of the best years for bears (health, at least… maybe numbers too) in decades.

The second event was a visit by Inuit hunters to Churchill. Since Hudson Bay is considered part of Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit territory, Inuit can harvest beluga whales provided they are not in the mouth of the Churchill River. Several belugas were shot this summer and inevitably some of them sink before the Inuit can get them and eventually wash up on shore, much to the joy of Churchill’s bear population. This second event, combined with a consistent presence of an informal ‘floe edge’ and open water early in the summer, is probably the real underlying factor surrounding the increase in polar bear alert activity this summer. Once the whales were ‘done’, bear encounters tailed off to similar levels of recent, post-Churchill garbage dump history, which is really pretty quiet actually.

Other exciting news from Churchill this summer includes the sighting of a mother with triplets along the coast of Hudson Bay. First reported by the summer tundra buggy tour, this is a very positive sign for Churchill’s bear population. Most bears that show up in the Churchill area can be considered as the periphery of the western Hudson Bay population, usually young, old or nutritionally challenged. Most healthy bears stay far away from Churchill until late in the season.

Wat’chee Lodge, a polar bear viewing operation focused on mothers and cubs emerging from the dens in spring, have reported triplets for the last few years as well. While triplets have been spotted moving through the Wildlife Management Area in 2006, this is the first display of a good, healthy, viable family. It will still be extremely challenging for the third cub to survive through this coming winter but this is an honest display of the health of this population. Who knows, another good ice season and maybe we’ll see two-year old triplets next year.

One of the challenges relating to a healthy bear population, at least for our slightly selfish purposes, is that there is no real reason to show up around Churchill in the fall. Most bears are ‘pushed’ to the Churhcill area, early arrivals including sub-adults (juveniles), nutritionally stressed mothers and cubs (usually young, maybe first-time mothers) or the very old bears on the decline. As October and November progress, more bears start moving along the coast of Wapusk National park and a ripple effects pushes new bears into the area, some healthier, stronger, until there is a nice overview of the western Hudson Bay population by early November.

Bears do not move if they don’t have to. If everyone is ‘fat and happy’ after a late season and successful spring hunt, then I would be surprised to see big numbers of bears until late in the season, maybe even past Halloween. Now, add this to the late break-up and cool temperatures and it could lead to a quick and possibly early (pre-November 15) freeze. Then again, Churchill has been ‘saved’ by south winds dispersing ice in early November at least a couple times in the last few years. The drama and excitement never ends!

Of course, I’m living up in the western Arctic now, just heading back for bear season, so I might as well throw in a bit of bear gossip from out here while we’re on the subject.

Close to Inuvik, Northwest Territories kind of the capital of the western Arctic, a polar bear was spotted on Shell Lake this spring, almost 150 km from the arctic shoreline and their natural habitat. Of course, it was soon confirmed to be a chunk of ice but not before the story was picked up by regional and national media… (Rumour is that this sighting started off as a bit of fun…)

Sport hunters around Tuktoyaktuk and Paulatuk are now seeking European tourists to fill the polar bear hunt spots vacated by the lack of Americans, although some American hunters still come up, hoping that they will, at some point, be able to get their hide across the border.

Bears were spotted for much of the summer near Ulukhaktok, formerly Holman, located on Victoria Island. Even here, ice was socked in much later than usual. Community members could not get out to traditional camps and bear sightings were fairly common (not Churchill common but rest of the world common…) until late July.

Still and all, 2009 is listed as the third lowest sea ice year since 1979, however, ice has been steadily increasing since a record low in 20007. There are more and more sail boats traversing the northwest passage, at least three or four of them doing documentaries about climate change and interviewing residents along the way. I can’t speak for sea ice overall but in most of the remote communities over here, it was a late spring as well. Hopefully for the bears, this ‘anomaly’ continues…

 

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