Last Monday, I was working with a film crew making a travel segment for Brazil television. Part of the story of Churchill and bears involves polar bear traps and Manitoba Conservation’s Polar Bear Alert officers. Officers are generally annoyed with but semi-tolerate film crews. Of course, at the same time, Churchill would not have the international attention nor the conservation budget without these doc crews so there is a bit of an ‘understanding’. Those days are probably my least favourite part of the job because we are following officers on the daily routine instead of getting close to bears but that’s the way it goes.
This year was a little different.
Each morning, officers and film crews make the rounds of the polar bear traps, this year there are four of them set up – two near town, one behind the graveyard and one at L5, the garbage dump/recycling centre. We arrived early at the graveyard trap and cresting the hill, we noticed that it had been set off. Slowing to a crawl, sure enough we saw a bear in the trap – good news for us, this is the shot everyone is looking for – Polar Bear Alert arriving at the trap and relocating the bear.
Unfortunately, there was also a cub sitting just beside the trap, a yearling, just under two years old. This happens every year, a female or a cub gets stuck inside a polar bear trap and the family is temporarily separated. Most of the time it ends well but we definitely did not want to be responsible for orphaning a cub. The little guy was pretty spooky.
We kept our distance and let the cub settle down. Everything was good. Soon, Conservation arrived and unfortunately did not notice the cub, as they drove up, he ran into the rocks and hid, occasionally peeking above the rocks to watch the trap. This is a tricky time of year because all of us are pretty tired from working every day and mistakes happen on all sides.
Once it became apparent that they were going to remove the female in the trap without the cub, we headed down to the trap to let them know. Eventually, I accompanied one of the officers into the rocks to confirm that it was indeed a cub and they called in backup to help them dart it. It was pretty exciting to help them sort out the situation.
The cub stayed in the rocks as officers flanked him and shot the tranquilizer dart. Once it hit, the cub brayed and the bear in the trap went mad, the whole trap was shaking! Soon, the cub was down and officers carried him over to the truck on a plywood body board. The mom and cub, reunited, were taken to the polar bear jail.
By Thursday, the film crew I was with sponsored a ‘bear lift’ to relocate this mother and cub north of Churchill, between North Knife and Seal River. I’m not much into watching bear lifts but the sight of the mother and cub raising their head and slowly waking up in the wild as we lifted off was pretty amazing.
It was a lucky break that we were there and could help Conservation, its a lot to ask Conservation Officers to patrol the town day after day while working with media and NGOs and controlling the public. As a way to give back to Polar Bear Alert for their help in the past, we purchased four motion cameras that can instantly alert officers when a bear is near a trap or in it. These cameras will send a picture to Conservation’s cel phone or office, essentially a live preview, and should prevent incidents like this from happening in the future.
As an added bonus, the film maker shared his footage with me so I now have a souvenir of the entire event on video, probably the highlight of my fifteen years of bear guiding in Churchill.