After the military started its official withdrawal in 1964, the ‘buffer zone’ created by the Fort Churchill base was removed. Polar bears soon appeared in the surrounding communities – Churchill, Akudlik and Dene Village. Bears invaded the various garbage dumps and surrounding area. Churchill wasn’t really quite sure what to do with them.
It was pretty wild times. Folks would drive out to the dump to watch (and picnic) with the bears. There are more than a few old photos kicking around of a young chap feeding a bear before Church – dressed in a suit no less – and maybe a few more of a little bear dressed up in a firefighters hat at the old rocket range. I think the photographers might have got a couple of unpaid ‘days off’ after that one though. No big deal though, they did have a straw broom on hand in case the bear got unruly.
Three serious bear attacks occurred in the late 1960s. In one case, the bear was tracked and startled by local kids. In another, the bear had been shot and wounded early that winter and again the day of the attack. The third bear had actually spent two months at the garbage dump, appearing to be a very tolerant, non-aggressive bear. Ten days before that attack, it had been tranquilized and tagged by researchers.
Beginning in 1967, when the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources decided to ‘study polar bear occurrences to determine how many bears became problems annually’. Two years later, the first polar bear patrol was put into action in the Churchill area although most problem bears were still ‘dispatched’.
Within a few years, the patrol started airlifting problem bears, primarily with funds provided by Brian Davies and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. A variety of locations were tried with differing degrees of success. Eventually, relocation to the North River area, about 50 kilometres northwest of Churchill, proved to be the most successful. Relocation, simply continued the bear’s natural progression northward.
However, by the mid-1970s, the situation had changed considerably. The Fort Churchill military base and several other smaller coastal communities were completely abandoned by that time. The reduced hunting pressures, both traditional and illegal, combined with the removal of the Fort Churchill dump, a definite bear attractant outside of town limits, resulted in a drastic increase in polar bear activity within the community of Churchill. By 1976, 220 bear sightings were recorded in the Churchill area (up from only 76 in 1967). As well, the 65 problem bears in residential sites were the highest number on record.
This also coincided with the arrival of a bit of a controversial Conservation officer. He was a bit trigger-happy and was so eager to shoot problem bears, even in front of onlookers, that he earned the nickname ‘Speedy’. While not everyone was exactly on the bears’ side, he was transferred out of town after only one season.
As a result of concerns expressed by mayor and council at the time – particularly the number of bears being destroyed, a local Churchill Polar Bear Committee, consisting of Churchill residents, members of council and Provincial Wildlife Branch representatives, was established. By 1977, this committee submitted fourteen recommendations and urged the acquisition of Building D-20 at Fort Churchill as a temporary holding place.
The facility, designed to hold up to 23 bears, opened in June 1980 (completed in 1981). With over 1,000 bears handled, the Polar Bear Alert program has played an important role in reducing human-bear conflicts in the Churchill area.
Over the lifetime of the jail, practices have generally remained the same. Bears are held to a maximum of thirty days although attempts are made to relocate them sooner and to move mothers and cubs as soon as possible. The bears are not given food in the jail but receive some snow for hydration.
The jail is generally emptied in the third week of November. Bears are once again tranquilized and loaded into a polar bear trap. They are then driven to the coast where officers backup to a ‘wall’ of railway ties, open the gate and then move forward to safely release the bears. The bears are then further hazed by officers to encourage them to head out on the ice.
With the increasing global attention on bears, improvements have been made to the jail. Air conditioning, in anticipation of more summer captures, was installed in the early 2000s. So far, the air conditioners haven’t had much use. A new roof and entry cage (after a bear got loose inside) have also been added. In recent years, the closure of the Churchill garbage dump and a change in policy by Manitoba Conservation to actively engage bears and reduce their reliance on polar bear traps has led to a modest reduction in the use of the bear jail.