Polar Bear Blog – Time to Move Out or In

There have been a few sightings of mothers and cubs around Churchill this year, the latest one a mother with one cub near L5, Churchill waste transfer facility. So, I thought I might give a backgrounder on what familes are up to at this time of year – that and I don’t feel like writing about oil today, the more I read the more I believe this is more Omnitrax bafflegab – I hope…

This is a time of change for many families in the western Hudson Bay population. Some females with older cubs, almost three years old by now, will be pushing them away, getting ready to head back on the ice alone. This has been witnessed down at Nanuk Lodge and can be a serious encounter. Sometimes, the female has to get pretty vicious with her cubs to chase them off, not quite the tender goodbye we may imagine. Other females have already split with their older cubs and are likely pregnant and heading inland now, looking for a maternity den.

Polar bears generally stop lactating around the second autumn after giving birth to cubs. It is believed that cubs are pushed off when a female returns to estrous after two seasons but this may not be the case for all bears, it is still poorly understood. The split probably depends on the bear’s health and fat stores as well as comfort level and tolerance of her cubs. I have seen mothers give their male cubs a pretty healthy cuff to the head at times…

Anyway, a good number of bears, somewhere around 10-15% of the population are pregnant and heading into the denning area (40-60km inland, generally protected within Wapusk National Park and Churchill Wildlife Management Area boundaries). In a ‘normal’ year, cub production is expected to run around 150-200 cubs to sustain this population. This year seems to have been an exceptional year for cubs while the last couple were not so great.

Pregnant bears need to weigh 650lbs or more for implantation to occur, otherwise the egg will just be reabsorbed. Early in bear season (first week of Oct), you often run into a very obese bear whose pregnancy didn’t ‘take’ for some reason – radio collar, cough cough… Other than that, you don’t really see the megafat bears anywhere near town, like as in their belly is almost touching the ground… well, except for ‘LardAss’ that comes to visit Edgar at L5.

Again, its a toss-up this year – we had a good ice year but breakup was very fast so some bears came ashore super early and others had decent years. Pretty hard to say what cub production will be like this year. Family groups always show up in Churchill for bear season – some are in good condition and even find some seals during their stay while others are under a bit of stress.

A tough hunting season either due to inexperience, advanced age or a quick ice melt can mean that a female will stop lactating by October and make freezeup a bit more critical for some families. When you look at it, the amount of nursing events that occur during Churchill’s bear season are likely a good reflection on the spring hunting season – especially since bears visiting Churchill are usually on the ‘fringe’ of the population – often the healthiest, fattest bears just stay away from town and tourists. Too bad that bear season and buggy drivers have been overlooked for so many years as a means of gathering intel on these bears – what a missed opportunity.

Anyway, what else is going on? Arviat is already reporting more bear than usual (as predicted on Polar Bear Alley!)… there were six bears hanging out on ‘the point’ and probably more to show up fairly soon. This is another thing that I think is being missed, the change in breakup patterns on Hudson Bay. The tricky thing is that not every ice season will drop a bunch of bears north of Churchill so the aerial research programs have not picked up this change yet, but I believe it happens more often than not… especially since 2005ish.

We’ll see if this continues to change Arviat’s view on the value of polar bears as tourism attractions versus pests… Polar bear tours in Kaktovik Alaska are well underway, with up to fifty bears reported feasting on the bowhead whale carcass. I am still mixed on this whole thing, I actually don’t have much of a problem with baiting for tourism but Alaskan’s still hunt these bears in the spring so I kind of want to get a bit more info before really endorsing Kaktovik. Either way, it really reminds me of the old Churchill dump tours – and, yeah, if any film company is looking for arctic fox shots this year, I might try that giant carcass… the mignight fox fights at the dump were truly something amazing.

Interesting story about how zoo bears were just about a thing of the past by 2006 and now, millions upon millions of dollars have (and are) being spent on new exhibits – all they need is the bears now! From the article… ‘By the end of the 1990s, zoos were generally getting rid of their polar bear exhibits. The animals, large terrestrial carnivores, were hard to care for and expensive to maintain. New government regulations made new habitats costly. In 1995, there were about 200 polar bears in 81 institutions, according to the North American Regional Polar Bear Studbook, which tracks zoo bears’ lives and deaths.  By 2006, both numbers had been cut in half.’ We stand around 60 polar bear in captivity right now… expect that number to change soon.

For better or worse, campaigning for more captive polar bears is the legacy of the Buchanan era of Polar Bears International… too bad really, a lot of good could have been done with that money. What’s really tricky is that the US still does not allow import of polar bears for use in zoos… plus Manitoba and Parks Canada just ‘saved’ polar bears again (they seem to release this type of article every year around this time – when really polar bears have been protected in Manitoba for over 30 years now… strangely no position on oil shipments yet though). The skeptic in me still thinks we will find a way around this regulation – we have already lobbied in Washington –  there is just too much money available for Manitoba to ‘rent’ bears to zoos or some such thing…  probably around the same time they save bears by kicking everyone out of Camp Nanuq, ha!

Came across some news about the bears in Southern Hudson Bay, looks like some of them are finding ways to hunt bearded seals in the ice-free season – whether this means that bearded seals are drastically over-populated or moving into coastal creeks or just a few bears have ‘clued in’, who knows… pretty interesting though. A blog by Martin Obbards on the PBI site tells a good story of just how different things can go for bears in a given year. Last year was by no means a drastically late freeze in the west, but took quite a while in James Bay… my only beef with this article is that it seems he highlighted the worst-case scenario in a year, when most bears had a good year. I also would have liked to know the actual ages of these bears, the one that dies sure seems like it was a very elderly animal.

That’s about it for today… Here is a quick chart of historic ice cover for Hudson Bay for the first week of September. Pretty neat how variable it has been although two things stand out – again, this supports my El Chichon volcano theory (1983 being a serious outlier) and shows how excluding the effects of that volcano really does skew the decline in sea ice.  Volcanoes have a major effect on the (kind of) closed system of Hudson Bay.  Without excluding the data from the Mount Pinatubo eruption, there was actually no statistically significant decline in sea ice when we started sounding the alarm.  We excluded that one, why did we leave in the other major eruptions?  I mean the decline is something serious but not nearly as drastic as we make it out to be. Anyhoo, one month to bear season!

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