Still no break in the weather and even the bears have settled down, with a couple singles and one family – a mother with one cub – nestled along the Churchill coast. A lot of the ice on the roads is melting now, giving the feeling that the season has started lurching backwards – kind of like the United States! (ahem, just kidding… sort of).
But given the current weather and political conditions, its probably a good time to talk about how bears have adapted to a changing climate over the last decade or so. First of all, the Western Hudson Bay bear population has been stable and possibly growing since 2001. This was long believed to be occurring by Inuit hunters and Churchill guides but has now been verified by the latest Environment Canada population study (Lunn et al 2016). While still reduced from the early 1990s, this is a good sign that the bears are able to cope with ice changes, at least on the short term.
Beyond consumption of geese and berries, there are a few other summer adaptations that have occurred. In northern Quebec, polar bears have discovered that fishing for arctic char in the summer can supplement their season. Much like grizzlies along the west coast, polar bears now splash through shallow rivers in search of spawning fish, reportedly with a fair degree of success.
North of Churchill, at Seal River, polar bears now return each summer to hunt beluga whales. They sit, perched upon rocks in the river, and once the tidal waters are shallow enough, they pounce on beluga whales that are swimming by. Even one or two beluga whales can make a real difference.
While filming across the Churchill River this summer, we witnessed another new behaviour. As the waters hit high tide, a large resident male slipped into the water and began swimming out into the bay, seemingly with no real purpose other than to cool off. As we followed, a pattern began to emerge. Despite swimming slowly, he was watching beluga whale pods and trying to anticipate their path.
The bear would swim or position himself in their pathway and as they neared, he would stick his nose underwater and begin watching the whales. Then picking the right moment, he would dive down just as the pod was passing by. He repeated this behaviour about 20-30 times, until he was far out into Button Bay.
From our guess, this big old bear was trying to pick out calves in the whale pods and possibly injure them. The water seemed too deep for him to really grab a whale and swim back to shore (although not much is surprising about bears anymore…). After watching him repeat this hunt, it occurred that he might be trying to injure a young whale and then hope that it gets stuck in a tidal pool or washed ashore.
The bear’s trajectory, along with Button Bay’s current, also meant that he would end up at the bottom of the bay, a convenient location from which to walk back to Eskimo Point and check to see if he’d had any hunting luck along the way. From reports that a couple young belugas had ‘washed’ ashore already last summer, he might have had some luck.
Either way, there are several examples of polar bears adapting quickly to this changing world. They are doing their part…