Polar Bear Blog – Number One

This is turning out to be another busy polar bear summer for the communities along Hudson Bay.  A fair number of bears have come ashore near Churchill, including at least three family groups.  Now, that the train is running again (as of Saturday…!), this sure looks like the right year to head to Churchill if you want to see belugas and bears all in one trip…

Churchill’s Leroy Whitmore posted some great polar bear footage shot with GoPro and a Phantom 2 along the coast of Hudson Bay.  Great stuff and it turns out that its a bear that I recognize, one that I first saw in Churchill back in 2005.

His most recognizable feature is the big ‘#1’ scar on his side, complete with a little serif on top.  Back then, he was a real ‘bad-ass’, a very aggressive albeit not-quite dominant bear.  Maybe six or seven years old, he was a ‘little brother’ as the Inuit call them, a bear that was too big to be a juvenile but too young to be battling the biggest males out on the ice.  Judging by Number One’s scar, he might have been battling just not quite winning at that time. Either way, he was a really intriguing bear.

I was driving buggy back then and there are a few little ‘tricks’ you learn, ways to get the bears to stand up beside the vehicle and such (the most common is the ‘bear whisperer’ where you make eye contact with the bear and then slowly turn your head away… sometimes keeping eye contact out of the corner of your eye). Anyway, you do these tricks and almost all the time, the bears respond with a fairly predictable response.  You can watch for little ‘triggers’ – a flick of the paw, turn of their head, etc – and have an idea when they will do something.  Number One was different, after one encounter with the ‘bear whisperer’, he had figured us out.  The second time I tried it, he slowly turned his head, looking away, and then lunged from a sitting position at the vehicle, almost knocking the camera out of my hand.

Through the season, he came close to knocking a door off a buggy and almost grabbed a few tourists, mostly the Russians…  He would stand up and then, contrary to what the books say, he would fully extend his body and then jump just an extra few inches to try and grab someone.  Very cool bear and one, that even back then, you knew was going to be a ‘winner’ out on the ice. Looking at this footage, Number One seems to be doing pretty well for himself.

In 2005, he was still a pretty ‘clean’ bear except for that large #1… today, at maybe eighteen years of age, he is pretty roughed up, with many battle scars on his fore legs and face.  Scars that come from the frantic spring battles for mating rights.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Number One was one of the top breeding males in this population right now.

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Luckily, it looks like he was heading east, back to the Wildlife Management Area but from mid-July to late November, its a long stretch for a bear like that to stay out of trouble.  I hope he does, to me, it is these kinds of bears that are the ones who give the population the best chance of adapting to changing patterns in sea ice.  We need the smart, creative and even aggressive bears, the ones who are ready to take a chance, the ones with that real drive to survive.

The tricky part is that it is exactly these bears that are the ones most likely to run afoul of authority, i.e. Polar Bear Alert.  With the recent re-instatement of the ‘three strikes’ policy, these are also the bears who are most likely to be eliminated from the population as well.  A similar bear, aggressive and bold, was put down a few years back first after a visiting photographer went too far down to the coast and was ‘chased’ by this bear.  When officers confronted the animal, he refused to be pushed back into the bay and ‘charged’ the officers truck.  That was, of course, a mistake on his part and it cost him.  Its too bad, even before that, this bear had a neat reputation among researchers for his evasive tactics and then his ‘stand your ground’ bravery as helicopters chased him down in mark-recapture studies.

The same can be said for the new trend of relocating ‘orphaned’ cubs to zoos.  On the surface, this seems like nothing but a feel good project but when you really look at it, what if we are removing the future leaders from this population.  These is a pretty low probability of survival but there is still a chance for these cubs.  Most likely female cubs will survive – they seem to watch their mothers more than male cubs…   So, if a female cub fights her way through the first years, she essentially takes another stage in ‘evolution’.  Her hunting skills on ice and her scavenging skills on land will be passed on to new generations – new studies show that bears are capable of, at least, supplementing their diet through extend off-ice seasons.

To me, Storm, the bear that knocked down the customs officer last summer (the cel phone incident), was an example of this potential.  At almost two years of age, she was just trying to figure out how to survive.  As we saw from the attack on Halloween night, nothing much can really deter a bear that is intent on its prey, not honking trucks, cracker shells, yelling, anything.  Storm backed away on her own accord, not because of some cel phone.

Unfortunately, there are many zoos, including Winnipeg, that have ample space for more polar bear cubs and more breeding stock.  At the same time, the real bad boys of the arctic are now under threat from Manitoba Conservation’s three strikes guidelines. Strange days.

Not many people or organizations are looking at this side of things as everyone is focused on the ‘bigger picture’: sea ice and carbon emissions. However, under the guise of ‘saving the species’ or in defence of public safety, we seem to be poised to remove the wild bears that may offer the best chance at adaptation for this population and maybe even the species.

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