We spent the day talking to a variety of management stakeholders in the Churchill area and here’s where we stand with Xena’s collar. It sounds like Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service) appears to be the only agency that is authorized to collar bears in the Churchill area. All of this activity takes place within Wapusk National Park in September. Polar Bears International then utilizes these collars as a means of fundraising for their organization and other research projects.
So, here’s the tricky part… Parks Canada issued the permit to collar this bear, however, they cannot handle the bear now that it is outside of Wapusk National Park. Manitoba Conservation can handle this bear since it is on Provincial Crown land but since the collar is under federal permit, they cannot touch the collar. PBI, since, they cannot identify if this is a bear they sponsor seems to be unable to assist in this endeavour other than sending emails like the rest of us. So, we’re in a bit of bureaucratic limbo, waiting for Environment Canada to provide some feedback, hopefully tomorrow.
I also want to be clear that this is not a matter of blaming any individual or organization, the collar was likely placed on this bear by Nick Lunn, one of Canada’s most respected bear researchers and, really, one of the world’s leading experts on radio collars.
The fact of the matter is that ALL radio collars must be secured tightly – not ‘snugly’ – on the bear or they will simply remove it. This is why adult male bears are not collar… they simply take the collar off because they don’t want to wear it. Females’ heads are larger than their necks so they do not have that luxury.
The only reason we have this window to view and hopefully remove this radio collar is that Xena is a powerful bear that can hold her own. She has chosen to remain in an area where most mothers and cubs avoid. Once she returns to the ice, I have no doubt that she will still have a good hunting season in spite of the collar’s restrictions but, its a catch-22, the more weight she gains, the tighter this collar will get. If it interferes with her hunting, one of her cubs will receive less nourishment. There is no ‘winning’ with a radio collar.
Xena is the second radio-collared family with COYs to pass through the Churchill area. The first was a bear with no name, she was a younger mother but in decent condition, not great. She didn’t stay long enough. She first arrived on November 11th, staying far out on the shore ice, avoiding contact with bears and people, constantly shifting her position when helicopters passed overhead. The next day she made a ‘bee-line’ for the Churchill River and Button Bay. While other families we encountered this season would walk a bit, rest a bit, kind of take their time often looking very comfortable around us. This family just keep moving, even if it meant ‘pushing’ another family along the coast.
Manitoba Conservation actioned this bear when she reached town. Officers guided her south to the Churchill River Flats and across the Churchill River. This was a best-case scenario for her as they were able to avoid darting her and placing her in the holding facility. A few days later, she showed up at Dymond Lake Lodge and stayed for a bit there. Still, she kept moving, hopefully, she is back on ice hunting seals now.
Here are some pictures of that family, she has a new collar as well and, once again, to me, it looks tight. She exhibited behaviours that were not consistent with other families that we encountered this year although I only have ‘anecdotal’ evidence of that and no body temperature or cortisone readings. So, its just my personal feeling about this bear, I guess.
Like Xena, this bear will eat the vast majority of its diet between April and June, a tremendous weight gain in a short period of time. The bears need this ‘feeding frenzy’ to survive the long periods of food deprivation that summer and deepest winter holds.
These bears will ‘survive’; that’s what polar bears do, even in a changing climate. There are studies that will be cited to say that radio collars have no discernible effect but, in reality, no one has ever followed a radio collared bear to see how it behaves after that level of handling or been able to see if these collars interfere with hunting or not.
When a radio collar stops transmitting, it is listed as ‘failed’. There seems to be no follow up to see if the bear died, if the collar fell off or just stopped working. Everyone just assumes that all the collars just fall off, yet, it seems that Andy’s collar stopped transmitting in 2011 but he may have worn it for the past 5-6 years…? He’ll wear it for another year because they can’t find him now.
I guess I’m just wondering why we can’t do better than this… or why we see so many collars now. Radio collars used to be rare, now you see one or two family groups with collars each and every year. Sometimes, you see obese females with radio collars, bears that should have been pregnant but are not denning.
There seems to be no way to measure if radio collars interfere with delayed implantation in polar bears. For pregnancy to initiate, a female bear must maintain a fall weight of about 300kg (660lbs), this is essentially a 100-150kg (300-400lb) weight gain from the previous September. There is no way to claim that a radio collar fitted on a bear one year does not interfere with this process when the bear essentially ‘doubles’ its weight. Makes no sense.
Information gained from radio collars is usually for baseline population ranges or seasonal distribution of females. We have all of this for the polar bears of western Hudson Bay. Now, we collar bears to watch for slight changes in winter distribution. If you have to collar bears, do it every ten years not every single year… or just don’t do it.
There are only a few bears on shore here, most floated away on the ice when south winds showed up this week. The bears that are here, are working the existing ice, hunting for seals. We watched a mother and cub patrolling the ice edge this afternoon, playing the odds.
Tonight, north winds have returned,so hopefully Parks Canada, Polar Bears International and Manitoba Conservation can come together and figure out a solution for Xena. She will leave soon and it would be a shame if we didn’t do everything possible to help this top bear succeed on the ice. Her cubs are the ones best equipped survive the El Nino years and the changing ice. We need these bears.