Polar Bear Blog – The Mysterious World of Churchill’s Polar Bears

Well, the Polar Bears of Churchill sure are getting hard to figure out. I was writing a recap of this ‘bear season’ when the new articles about Churchill’s bears hit ‘The Guardian’. In a series of essays, Susan Goldenberg outlined the ‘plight’ of Churchill’s bears.  Of course, it should be noted that most of her ‘view from Churchill’ does come from Polar Bears International so take it for what that’s worth.

The articles meander through a world where you can see the stark shoulder blades of starving bears, where polar bear encounters are on the rise due to climate change and where the western Hudson Bay bears are doomed by 2020. It cites research that female polar bears are now 65kg lighter than they were in 1980.

What struck me was that these articles are pretty much in direct contrast to my experiences and most of the guides I’ve talked to this season. The remote lodges (Gellinni River, Seal River and Nanuk Lodge to the south) all reported bears in good condition. Arviat had another big year for bears, about twenty around the community for the season.

In Churchill, this bear season will go down as a ‘cub season’. A big wave of females with cubs arrived in early November (signaling an early freeze…), the most we have seen in a few years. It makes sense after the great season at Watchee Lodge this spring. The only truly distressed female that was spotted this year was a radio-collared female that had apparently just lost her cub…

The breakup of Hudson Bay was not particularly early in Churchill this year and freezeup actually occurred ahead of schedule – for the second year in a row. It was ‘different’, basically melting outwards from Cape Churchill.

The ‘increase’ in polar bear activity near Churchill, itself, seems to be as much due to a change in garbage disposal as a change in ice conditions. For sure, bears that came ashore near Churchill made the wrong decision and, thereby, lost another couple weeks of seal hunting. Then again, Manitoba Conservation officers reported that the larger bears they were picking up were around 150lbs heavier than last year.

The gates at Churchill’s garbage storage facility, L5, were under repair for part of the summer. This provided access to garbage and attracted bears closer to town. Once the gates were repaired, these garbage bears gradually drifted toward and into town. As well, the town began to burn garbage at the scrap metal dump once again. Located only 5km outside of Churchill, this further attracted bears closer to town and to Goose Creek. Mothers with cubs could be seen moving between the scrap metal dump and L5 this season.

As well, grain tailings dumped by Omnitrax near the Port of Churchill seem to be attracting bears into town. This started about three years ago (?) and is fast becoming a problem, hopefully Omnitrax will work to remove these grain piles.

Researchers also quote unpublished data that Churchill’s polar bear population has now dwindled to 850 bears and will likely reach an unsustainable level by 2020. This, of course, is a fair bit different from what we are seeing – I mean more bears are being seen all along the coast, not just ‘coming into communities’. This includes Manitoba Conservation’s own data.

Over 40 years, they have actually seen an increase in polar bears along the coast. Of course, this is just attributed to a ‘change in distribution’ but couldn’t an increase in polar bear sightings just mean an increase in bears as well? This option – as well as local reports from Churchill and Arviat – seems to have been discounted.

I’m not trying to be a climate change denier here but, um, this data kind of seems like our bears are doing okay…  Then again, ‘okay’ doesn’t really stimulate a wave of donations… nor does it provide a rationale for stocking zoo exhibits…  I mean you would think that people would notice that some bears are 150lbs lighter than they used to be, no?  Weird, huh…?

The other story circulating out there is that of Leona Aglukkaq’s polar bear tweet. In it, she congratulates an Arctic Bay hunter on his first bear hunt. A lot of people are chastizing her about posting this image yet no one seems to blink when the rotting carcass of a starved bear is posted. Strange times.

Yes, it is a bit of a different world up in northern Baffin than Churchill, and I’m not that big on hunting myself, but the story remains the same… but when it comes to bears, the Arctic and the outside world are just getting farther apart.

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