Polar Bear Blog – Bears Ready, Ice Not So Much

On this day last year, bear season was over.  Enough ice had packed onto shore that most of Churchill’s bears left en masse, heading back out to try their luck at early season seal hunting.  Other than a stressed out reality film crew, everyone was pretty excited about yet another early freeze.

This year holds a much different story.  El Nino has finally arrived and its really almost t-shirt weather in Churchill, possibly even naked sun bathing.  The Churchill River is still open and south winds have washed the shore ice back into the bay.  Early in the season, I predicted a November 28th freezeup, but looking at the forecast, the might even seem like wishful thinking…

After a slow start, it has been a pretty decent year for bears, with steady numbers through November and numbers spiking in the last few days.  Once again, there are many family groups and what looks like many young mothers with coys.  These young families have a tough road ahead as El Nino years usually bring an early break up, cutting the critical spring hunting season short.

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Again, western Hudson Bay seems to be a tale of two bears, those that swim ashore early near Churchill and those that ride the ice far to the south.  Reports out of Nanuk Lodge include healthy bears and early season seal kills, even a tolerance of meal sharing with the resident wolf pack.

Up here, its a bit of a different story, the bears are not in ‘great’ shape this year, some have definitely struggled.  Early this season an old male killed a cub and then tried to grab another one, a clear sign of starvation be it from an old injury or arthritic pain.  It is very rare for this to happen and the last time I can think of this occurring near Churchill was just after the 1998-99 El Nino.  Those were very tough times for the bears, between 1997 and 2003 the population may have declined by about twenty per cent.

It is the very young and the very old that have the most difficulty with these years and right now, there seems to be quite a few young bears running around, like a lot.  This is good and bad news for guiding on the ground as young bears are fun to watch but also extremely curious, walking straight up to the group instead of circling or ignoring you like older bears.

These young bears, some looking a lot like ‘orphaned’ yearlings, are a bit of a mystery.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a portion of the western Hudson Bay population would wean their cubs after only one hunting season instead of the traditional two years of nursing.  This was taken as a sign of a healthy population and was really only recorded for this brief time and only in this area of the arctic.

All of these sub-adults running around does seem to suggest that the western Hudson Bay population is once again healthy and, I believe, growing.  I have my doubts we’ll ever know if this is truly the case as only bad news about bears seems to get media or research attention these days.  Still, from what we’re seeing on the ground, it sure seems like the past five or more years have been very good ones.

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