This bear season is shaping up to be a bit of a tricky one… When we arrived on November 1st, it felt as thought the season was about a week late. One week later and it feels like its two weeks late, judging by the forecast with an average 8-10C above normal for the next week, we could be three weeks late. Its almost like we’re stuck on October 21st or something. And October 21st isn’t really prime bear season.
With gray and drizzle, the bears keep moving. A couple new family groups have moved into buggyland to the east but the bears on this side have spread out a bit, with a couple picked up by Manitoba Conservation. Its getting a bit quiet again. Most guides were out scouting for red foxes and ptarmigan these last couple days with most bears hunkered down waiting for the temperatures to drop.
A bit of sad news came on Saturday. A very nice little family, a mother with two yearling cubs that we were watching at Bird Cove, decided to walk back east on Friday evening. Unfortunately, she ended up at Great White Bear lodge where an old male has taken up residence. He’s in his last years, just coming down from being in the ‘one percent’ of this population, and he has a large wound on his back leg. Not in the best of moods to say the least.
As the family arrived in the evening, he perked up and took up chase, likely defending his turf but also desperate for a meal it seems. He chased the family around the lodge a few times and then they disappeared into the night. The next morning, we found out that he had caught one of the cubs and killed it. Another reminder of just how tough these bears’ lives are along the coast of Hudson Bay.
To me, this cannibalism is more of a sign of an aging population rather than the changing ice patterns. This ice season was decent with bears showing up in late July. However, over the last couple years, we have been seeing at least a couple old bears cruising through, just at the tail end of their life cycle, probably 22-24 years old.
This could be the end of the ‘pinatubo bears’, a generation of bear cubs that got a bit of a head start due to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the temporary global cooling that followed in the early 1990s. If these larger than normal bears dominated the population for the last twenty or so years, there could be a real changing of the guard occurring out on the ice right now; likely with 10-15 year old males starting to dominate. For me, this is a more plausible explanation of the apparent increase in cannibalism events, especially given that ice patterns and population numbers have been somewhat stable for over ten years now.
These population numbers could be due to change again with the predicted El Nino now upon us, even if its six months late… The last El Ninos – 1982/83 and 1998/99 – were very hard on western Hudson Bay. These ‘strong’ El Nino (98/99) and La Nina (1988/89) events seem to be linked to substantial population drops (~20-25%) in just one season, too little or too much ice is really a tricky thing for these bears. It seems like the real ‘perfect storm’ for these bears is a strong El Nino followed by a strong La Nina… They can handle them on their own but not together, unfortunately that’s where it looks like we’re headed.
While the last population crash in 1999 has for the most part recovered, the population likely remains lower than its traditional carrying capacity. Another significant El Nino/La Nina event – late freeze and early breakup – could really damage this population’s chances at long-term survival. That’s something to really watch this season.