Around this time each year, I start re-reading my collection of Fred Bruemmer books. Today, its ‘Encounters with Arctic Animals’ (1972). He has such a nice writing style and the stories in these books are back from the early days of research, tourism and everything polar bear. Really a lot of neat ideas in here…
‘Occasionally bears travel with the pack ice down the Labrador current, as passive migrants. Nearly every year one or more polar bears are seen at the north tip of Newfoundland. In 1966, one was shot at Great Brehat, six miles north of St. Anthony and in 1967, another was killed at Ship Cove. Some years ago, a polar bear was killed in the Lake St. John (Lac St. Jean) region of Quebec. It had presumably drifted into the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the ice and was trying to hike overland back to its northern territories.
Long ago, though, polar bears were common along the Labrador coast. The 18th century trader-explorer-hunter Captain George Cartwright came upon more than a dozen polar bears, scooping salmon out of a south Labrador river in the fashion of the great Alaska brown bears. Dr Charles Jonkel of the Canadian Wildlife Service has suggested this may have been a locally learned technique of the Labrador bears. Since this group has vanished, no further observations of polar bears catching salmon or char in this manner have been reported.
If the polar bear’s range has diminished (they once regularly visited Iceland and may even have denned on its northwest coast), it may be due as much to the warming trend of the arctic climate as to overhunting. But they are not nearly as numerous now over their entire range as they were a couple of centuries ago, when arctic whalers on several occasions counted more than a hundred bears in the immediate vicinity of a whale carcass and often shot them by the score. Between 1905 and 1909, Dundee whalers alone killed more than a thousand polar bears off the East Greenland coast.
As a result of such ruthless slaughter, the world population of polar bears is now estimated to be only between ten and twelve thousand, with about six thousand in the Canadian north. Russian estimates are even lower. Soviet scientists believe only eight to ten thousand polar bears may be left.
There are some indications that, if the polar bear’s range has shrunk, that of the black bear is extending northward. When I visited Nachvak Fjortd, northern Labrador, more than a hundred miles north of the treeline, in 1968, an Eskimo had just shot a young male black bear. Several black bears, including a female with cubs, were seen near Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay; and two hundred miles to the northwest, near Payne Bay, another black bear was shot in 1968, again far north of the treeline and the first the Eskimos of that region had ever seen. Still stranger is the case of the black bear killed in 1967 near Povungnituk, northeastern Hudson Bay. It was shot in midwinter (when it ought to have been hibernating) on a small island in Hudson Bay.’
That’s forty years ago… pretty cool. Black bears have once again been seen extending their territory and some have been recording hunting seals out on the ice. Same thing goes for grizzlies over on Victoria Island. It does kind of support an argument that we are within forty year cycles of warming/cooling within an overall warming trend… something to think about.
‘Baffin Island eskimos insist there is a ‘super bear’, twice as large as ordinary bears; similarly colossal bears have been reported by Siberian tribes. The 16th century Dutch explorer Willem Barents reported polar bears twelve and thirteen feet long from the Spitsbergen area, and a male measuring 12 foot 4 inches and weighing a reported 2,210lbs was killed in 1960 off the Alaska coast. Normally, though, adult males weigh between six hundred and one thousand pounds, and females between five and seven hundred pounds.’
The ‘super bear’ phenomena may be similar to the ‘Pinatubo’ bears of the modern era. When the right type of volcano erupts, it cools the summer temperatures in many places of the arctic and basically extends the feeding season, giving a big headstart on life from some bears. Then again, maybe there was a different genetic strain of polar bears that was simply wiped off the face of the planet by hunting.
‘At this time (when polar bears come ashore in summer), the bears switch from a wholly carnivorous to a predominantly vegetarian diet. It is rather surprising to see a polar bear, the world’s largest carnivore, sitting peacefully on an arctic meadow munching grass and sedges. This diet may be supplemented with seaweed, sorrel and other plants, with berries in fall, and in lemming years some polar bears methodically hunt these little rodents. Sometimes they raid colonies of eider ducks or snow geese, slurping eggs and catching the odd brooding bird. In the fall of 1967, a hunter near the coast of Hudson Bay saw a polar bear stalk on of his goose decoys with patience and skill. At ten years, it pounced but then it only got a mouthful of papier mache, it flattened every decoy in sight.’
Polar bears have always been resourceful and their varied summer diet is actually not a sign of distress or desperation, it is simply what bears have always done. The more history of animals you read, the more you realize we are making current decision based on a very narrow view of animal intelligence and adaptability. Here’s a bit of stuff from even farther back than the 1960s…
‘The Romans knew the great white bears of the Arctic and, to amuse the populace, flooded specially built arenas where polar bears were pitted against seals in aquatic battles’
Crazy huh?! Thanks goodness our civilization has advanced to the point where we don’t need to imprison animals merely for our entertainment. Drum roll please!! Thank you. And finally…
‘At the famous Hagenbeck circus in Germany, twenty-one polar bears were once trained to pull a sled. The project was undertaken at the request of Roald Amundsen, the famous polar explorer, who hoped to use the team in the Arctic. But the bears’ trainer had no yen for the polar regions, and Amundsen was a bit doubtful whether he could handle the bear team on his own. So he used huskies to reach the South Pole and the bears performed their act at the circus.’
Now THAT sounds like a project! North Pole here we come!!!
Once again, thanks for the great books Fred…