Well, I have been writing posts about Churchill’s bears being ‘okay’ for a three or four years now and consequently have been labelled a ‘denier’ by some and misinformed by others but it turns out that, at least for now, Environment Canada agrees with me. At recent Nunavut Wildlife Management Board meetings, Environment Canada stated that while the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population declined between 1984 and 2004, it has remained relatively stable for the last decade. The currently accepted population estimate is 1030 bears.
While Churchill’s opinion and local knowledge is still under-valued, this trend is in keeping with observations by guides and residents. No one has ever argued that the bears are not in ‘worse’ shape than the 1980s but no one is seeing a consistent trend towards skinnier and more desperate bears. What Churchill is seeing are more bears in the summer indicating a shift in breakup pattern not so much continually earlier breakups and more extreme variation in bears’ body condition, bears are either in really good or really bad shape, not a whole lot in between.
This current population estimate is a direct result of the Government of Nunavut’s efforts to conduct a non-invasive aerial survey to counter the unofficial estimate of 806 bears issued by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 2011. At that time, another computer model had suggested that the population had reached a low of 650 bears. So, another non-invasive aerial survey is planned for 2016 and that seems like good news to me in a world where science and local knowledge seem pretty far apart right now.
Then again, ‘good news’ is never quite good news for bears because when populations go up so do hunting quotas. On the other hand, the quota is still only 2.5% of the population instead of the traditional 5% and, well, if the population was still plummeting, we would be plucking bears out for zoos instead. So, take your pick, I guess…
But, considering the first computer models had predicted this population to be ‘unsustainable’ by 2012 – not producing enough cubs, or possibly not producing any… – I would say these bears have proven they are more resilient that we give them credit for. Or more importantly, maybe the computer models are not quite as ‘resilient’ as we believe.
Within this all of this, there is something really striking that I think has been missed. We’ve all heard of the ‘shocking’ 22% decline in population between 1987 and 2004. During this era, the population dropped from 1200 bears to 935… but from what I can tell, the real story is actually more dramatic than has been portrayed in the media – as if that was possible… ahem.
The Western Hudson Bay polar bear population was declared ‘stable’ in 1999, i.e. there were 1000 bears in the study area (approximately Wapusk National Park) and another 200 estimated for Cape Tatnum. This ‘estimate’ had remained the same since the early 1980s. Then over the next five years, this number dropped by almost 300 animals. To me, this is the real story.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of very poor ice conditions, especially considering spring breakup. This reduced the bears’ time to hunt. At the same time, this population was experiencing a ‘spike’ from the effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption and cub production and survival had increased from 1992-93. As of 1990, scientists were suggesting that the Western Hudson Bay population was reaching ‘carrying capacity’, i.e. the maximum numbers of bears that this habitat could support.
To further complicate things, seal pup production decreased in the 1990s, so now you had more bears competing for less seals in a shorter hunting season; essentially, the perfect storm. As a result, I believe this population ‘crashed’ maybe over just five years and not over 25 as is portrayed in the media.
So, in one sense, that is bad news that a dramatic sea ice decline can really reduce this population in a very short time but it is also good news, in that, these bears may have already weathered the ‘perfect storm’.
Now, throw in the fact that Churchill guides have been seeing a lot more ‘untagged’ bears than recent history… don’t expect the world of bears to get any less complicated…