Polar Bear Blog – Beluga Cams and Polar Bear Families

So, I checked the WWF polar bear tracker on the bottom of this page to see what was up with the families they are following. Their summer movements were really surprising to me. Of the two remaining collars that are (sort of) functioning, both families have travelled extensively this summer rather than simply park on the coast and wait.

One family, a 21 year old bear with two cubs, actually came ashore very close to Churchill. Yet, instead of a short migration into the denning area or along the coast, this family has walked over 200 kilometres south to the Manitoba-Ontario border. To me, it seems hard to believe that she will now turn and head back to Churchill for October but who knows. This really could be an example of the ‘leakage’ between Western and Souther Hudson Bay populations.

The other family, 18 years old with one cub, came ashore near Seal River and has also walked south to Churchill and while her collar has now stopped transmitting, it seems that she would likely be heading for the denning area in Wapusk National Park. Both of these families seem to be moving contrary to widely believed patterns – i.e. females come ashore two weeks earlier when the ice is passing Wapusk and generally move inland to camp out and wait for the weather to cool once again.

Either way, these two families and likely others, appear to move around a lot more than we believe. Now, if you include the third family who either did not survive this spring or their collar simply fell off, it gets even more complicated. She was handled just north of Churchill and travelled in the ‘western Hudson Bay’ ice area yet headed north this spring, ending up near Chesterfield Inlet. So three bears tagged and collared as ‘western Hudson Bay’ bears actually could have been from the three different subpopulations in the area. Interesting…

And, yes this is a broken record, but I remain concerned about radio collars – I like looking at the data but really wonder if they are impacting the lives of these bears. There is such a massive weight gain and loss over the year that, well, I just don’t know… So, maybe these collars were designed to fall off this spring but the loss of three of four collars by August – whether this translates to bear mortality or not – seems a bit disconcerting.

On the bright side, Arctic Bay, way up on the northwest corner of Baffin Island, is undertaking a tourism/outfitters strategy. Basically, they are setting up a community organization to book and provide infrastructure for local guides and outfitters. They cite their strengths as floe edge, whales and polar bears and talk about how Churchill was a successful tourism model but that it didn’t happen over night, etc etc.

I am very hopeful for this move in Arctic Bay as I like travelling in the north and watching arctic wildlife so I would like to provide some free advice for this project. Just stop shooting everything, that’s why Churchill was and is successful. They stopped killing polar bears and stopped hunting whales. There was a fair bit of resistance on the whale issue (a bit less with polar bears… kind of) but after only a few years, the difference in a non-hunted population is really amazing.

As long as Arctic communities continue the ‘harvest’, there really will be no substantial polar bear tourism. When people cite ‘tradition and culture’ as a reason to continue shooting bears, well I would counter with the idea that Britain and Spain’s colonial cultures involved conquering nations and killing the native populations but thankfully, they dropped that tradition… Things can change sometimes…

Finally, Polar Bears International and Explore.org have set up a beluga cam at the Churchill River and, while this is kind of another idea that PBI stole from my ol’ buddy Dennis, I guess I’m pretty excited about it. Maybe the world will finally clue in to what an amazing place the Churchill River is in the summer. Thousands of whales come and go with the tides each day, and – since they are not hunted – they are perfectly comfortable with boats and even with people snorkelling. It is just incredible, probably the biggest thing I miss about Churchill in the summer.

Its funny though, when an Inuk boat is on its way down from Arviat, Churchill’s beluga whales actually kind of disappear for a day – its like word has got out that a hunter is coming. As long as that boat is in harbour, they are aloof and spread out… once it leaves, everything goes back to normal. So, nudge nudge, Arctic Bay… less hunting equals more tourism, just sayin’.

For their part, the belugas are swimming by talking about capelin, tourists and the origins of the universe.. and maybe wondering if we’re accidentally going to pour oil all over them.

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