Polar Bear Blog – Northwinds

North winds have finally hit after a month of south and west winds. Ice built up in late October but was all dispersed by wind and warm temperatures of November. There is some ice build up around Seal River, Arviat and Button Bay but its still a tough year for most bears.

The last wave of mothers and cubs have arrived and are trying to lay low waiting for the ice. It’s a tall order though, these last family groups have spent most of the season hiding out in the willows and at the treeline, preferring privacy over paparazzi. Anticipating freezeup, they have made their move for the coast. In most years, this is a straight shot for them. Usually a day or two after the ice freezes and most bears ‘leave’, you get a pulse of mothers with cubs, spotted for one day and then vanishing on the horizon. Many families are only encountered as fresh tracks, passing through in the middle of the night.

It’s a bit a strange vibe right now. On the one hand, its great to go out and watch bears without a bunch of rental vehicles and buggies around, but on the other hand, you can almost feel the frustration and concern from the mother bears. More than any other bears, these family groups need this early season seal hunting window.

Right now, the best seal hunting is likely along the west coast of Button Bay, just across the Churchill River. Luckily, Manitoba Conservation’s policy this year has heavily relied on moving bears along the southern end of the Churchill River Flats. This allows bears to move across the river on the frozen fresh water ice and usually avoid the salt water tides and open water at the mouth of the Churchill. In a year that has been characterized by family groups including many young mothers, this is a welcome policy as several of these families have been spotted at ChurchillWild’s Dymond Lake Lodge near the little pockets of sea ice that we have.

El Nino is a bit of a double-edge sword, the breakup is late this year but again, the bears are not waiting so much for the ice but looking for the seal hunting window that early ice provides. By January, the ice will be too thick for much hunting success. Through the winter, polar bears rely on ‘still-hunting’ more than anything, staking out seal breathing holes in the hopes of making a kill. This is a very low percentage gambit and as a result, polar bears hit their lowest weights of the year by spring.

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So, here’s where we sit. El Nino, as expected, has brought a warm November and a change in prevailing winds. On the surface this is not good. Last night, the north winds returned with a vengeance (hence the blogging and coffee today…) and if we can get a handful of north winds with -10C or colder, the ice should lock in along Cape Churchill.

In a best case scenario, El Nino would then keep December temperatures mild and maybe extend the ‘early season’ hunt to Christmas. A ‘slow’ freeze after the bears are on the ice is really what every bear wants. Access to ‘young’ ice along the tidal zone has allowed bears in recent years to actually cache seal kills on Button Bay, continuing to hunt long after they have satiated their hunger.

In a worst cast scenario, the south winds return before the ice is locked and bears continue to wait on shore. Without ice along Cape Churchill, more bears will arrive from coast of Wapusk National Park including more desperate bears. It could be a very busy December for Manitoba Conservation if that occurs.

I’m still guessing November 28th for freezeup, somewhere in between best and worst case. These bears have had a few good years now and, especially after seeing the bears this year, I believe the population may be growing. However, they are heading for a bit of a challenge if El Nino’s effects remain.

In the past, major El Ninos (1982-83 and 1998-99) have meant a warm November/December, cold winter and then a warm spring (April-June), meaning the bears could be off ice in early June; the perfect storm for Western Hudson Bay.

Note: I have read a few articles citing the ‘major’ El Nino event of 2007. As El Nino events are measured, 2007 was not significant nor did it have any real effect on this population. As well, it was likely tempered by the volcanic eruption of Eyafjokull in Iceland. Remember, El Ninos, La Ninas, volcanoes and movement of the jet stream happen all the time. Bears have dealt with these for centuries. It is only the outliers, such as Mount Pinatubo or El Nino 1998-99, that really have an effect on climate and on wildlife populations.

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