2015 is almost here so probably time for the Polar Bear Year in Review… First off, we will cover Churchill and western Hudson Bay…
Overall, it has been a decent year for Churchill’s polar bears. The breakup was a bit tricky with breakup radiating out from Churchill instead of really following the traditional drift south. This meant that some bears ended up on shore very early while others rode the ice for a couple more weeks. The difference in condition really showed this ‘bear season’, some bears looked great and others reminded me of the ‘climate change’ years of the early 2000s.
The bears that did follow the ice south were in very good shape. During a visit to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, we saw one of the fattest bears I have seen in a long, long time and all others, even the old guys, looked good. They feasted on berries and sedges from morning to night. By all accounts, it should be a very good cub season along Kaskatamagan, the coast east of the Nelson River, this spring.
Several bears summered north of Churchill including two of Churchill’s ‘most wanted’ – two big males known for breaking into cabins and L5, the recycling centre near town. Last year, they had satellite tags attached as an alternative to euthanasia. This year, they were picked up head south to Churchill and relocated to the polar bear jail. The only downside is that they had a truly extended stay in their cels but its better than the alternative, I suppose.
North of Churchill, Hubbard Point is fast becoming a polar bear ‘hotspot’, due to changing ice patterns and polar bear movements. Several big male polar bears summered there, just north of ChurchillWild’s Seal River Lodge. With its wide swath of fireweed, it is really a photographer’s dream.
In Churchill itself, it was another great summer for bear and whale watchers. Through most of July and well into September, polar bears could be seen everyday by visitors and guides. Manitoba Conservation did move most of these bears north before ‘bear season’ actually arrived but luckily, many more bears replaced them.
Through October and November, there really just seemed to be a steady stream of bears arriving, not so much building up to a ‘peak’ like normal years but there just always seemed to be a consistent number of bears, mostly mothers with cubs. Given the amont of family groups and females with two cubs, it seems like conditions are pretty good for bears along western Hudson Bay right now.
Freezeup occurred on November 13th. The bears left en masse and the south wind that usually ‘saves’ bear season arrived a couple days too late. For the next couple days, there were some family groups passing through but it really ended quite quickly this year. Conservation officers had emptied out the jail by the 16th, almost a week early.
Speaking of Polar Bear Alert, they seem to have gone back to a more traditional approach to managing bears near Churchill, using a combination of hazing, bear traps and helicopter relocation. I thought it worked quite well this year and created much less stress on the animals than in previous years. Once motion cameras are added to the polar bear traps to alert officers, this current system should work quite well for people and bears.
Once again, you can find anything you want -good or bad – in the bears this year. Breakup was strange and a sign of a changing world while freezeup was early and really followed the pattern from the 1980s more than anything. Early season seal kills were evident from helicopter flights and several bears seemed to do well in their summer foraging, be it berries or whale carcasses.
The real positive sign that I see in this year comes from the polar bear tracker website, both Polar Bears International and World Wildlife Fund. These websites use radio collars to track females during their season on the ice but what is really noticeable this year is the amount of cubs that are listed. There seem to be more bears with two cubs than I have seen in a while, for the past years, most bears seem to have been travelling with only one young.
So, for ten years now, this population seems to be holding its own which I think is just a real testament to the bears’ resiliency. Now, its time to start watching for population growth. If the next aerial study in 2016, shows that these bears have bounced back to a population of 1200, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.
Tomorrow… what’s up in the rest of the polar bear world…