So tourist numbers and even polar bears out in Buggyland might be quiet so far but it has been a busy year for polar bears in Churchill itself. Just last week, 17 polar bear occurrences were recorded by polar bear alert; an occurrence is recorded as any time there is a ‘call out’ usually from the polar bear alert hotline. To date, there have been 158 bear occurrences. This is a very high number considering that last year there were 169 calls over the entire ice free season, the last call being a straggler on December 11th.
Currently, the polar bear jail, a holding facility on the outskirts of Churchill, has 14 bears (out of a possible 29) inside. Here, the bears are held for up to thirty days in an effort to prevent problem bears from re-entering town and to discourage ‘repeat offenders’, of course, this does not always work. They are fed snow to keep them hydrated and cool but are not given food since they are in a natural ‘walking hibernation’ and would not be eating anyway. Bears are then either relocated by helicopter to the North River/Seal River area about 40-50 miles north of Churchill or are simply released along the coast once the ice freezes.
The polar bear alert program has been operating for just over forty years now, first initiated after bear encounters increased after the military withdrew from Churchill in the mid-60s. Several officers patrol the community, responding to calls to the hotline and either scaring the bears away with firecracker shotgun shells, trapping them in culvert bear traps or tranquilizing them.
For the past few years, in a large part due to the closure of the Churchill dump, bear encounters have fallen in the Churchill area (about 60% fewer bears), however, several factors, including the presence of a lead or a crack in the ice formed by wind and currents, close to Churchill this summer, has led to increased bear activity. Even though, the ice season was late this year, the first bear occurrence was recorded on July 11th.
Numbers usually build through October and peak by mid-November. A late freeze-up can usually results in a significantly higher number of occurrences in the Churchill area, since as it gets colder, more bears arrive and they become more active and, of course, more curious. Even with a regular freeze-up this year, numbers should top 250-300 encounters, however, if fall remains fairly mild and freeze-up does not occur until late November, we could easily have a record bear season to accompany a record ice season.
Some good news includes the fact that the mother and triplets spotted out in Buggyland earlier this summer never did show up in town, likely heading back inland to wait things out until later in the season. A good strategy. Of course, given the level of activity for polar bear alert this year, it might be a good strategy to stay away from polar bear alert officers by week four of bear season…