December 5th and the north winds have finally arrived… you could almost feel the relief sigh across the landscape. Things were starting to get a little ‘weird’ and Churchill is already a little weird.
The first real sparring on this side of buggyland started yesterday with two big males locked in a good battle for most of the morning, enjoying the -15C temperatures and the thought of pending freezeup. Along the coast, you can find about twenty bears – some close, some out at the ice edge (which is not too far) – each day… as the day passes, they gradually disperse or melt into hiding spots but still, that’s a lot of bears.
Today, we came across five different family groups at ‘Bird Cove’ which is the furthest east we can drive on the built-up road system, about 20 kilometres away from town. They were all ‘new arrivals’, at first skittish of vehicles, then ultra curious but still ‘spooked’ by any movement. Soon they settled down and tomorrow and by the end of the day, they had found their comfort zones and were pretty casual – even when a Manitoba Conservation truck came out for an afternoon drive; not vanishing when a Conservation truck appears is a pretty good sign that these are ‘new’ bears.
While this late freezeup has not held much good news, there are a few bright spots. First, the weather forecast is finally showing signs of locking the ice to the shore. Wind is going to pick up to 40km gusting to 60km per hour on Tuesday and with -20C highs forecasted for the rest of the week, the ice should lock in pretty quick. Right now, there’s a lot of fresh water ice floating around out on the horizon.
The other positive is that some bears are out hunting seals, or at least trying their hand at it. A mother with her yearling was out patrolling the ice edge, working pretty hard. Yesterday, a little female sub-adult came out to the ice, dipping her head in and then even jumping in before quickly exiting, rolling on the ice and happily running away. It was a pretty nice moment in a tough year, she probably has a pretty good future.
The last positive note is that we have drastically under-estimated how many mothers and cubs stay hidden through the season and then make a last minute break for the sea ice. This season must have set a record for family groups, some showing up for one day and then melting back into the treeline, other heading through town and pushed across river.
Every other year, these bears are just evidenced by a fresh set of paw prints heading to the ice. They usually pass in the night or early morning, maybe seen for one day if at all. Today, five family groups showed up looking for the ice, maybe even following their last minute dash to the ice; only to find there was no ice waiting.
For most of the day, we were parked along Bird Cove, watching the comings and goings of family groups, the dynamics of older and younger mothers and the size differences between cubs that are essentially the same age. I can honestly say that if I had a few blocks of chicken, I would have fed them all; if only to just keep them away from town and its confusing rules for a few more days.
Maybe Provincial regulations will allow for diversionary feeding once the next El Nino shows up in fifteen years. If we are exagerrating natural weather patterns through human influence, it only seems fair to feed the bears – the mother and cubs specifically – in the ‘perfect storm’ years. Do it in a way that they don’t associate humans with food and it can really work. If there’s an alternative, I’m open to ideas… but the last time this weather phenomena happened (98-99), almost 20% of the population didn’t make it.
Another note that should be positive is that there are a heck of a lot of cubs around this year and that means that this population continues to fight and adapt against changing ice but also is probably growing. I am pretty confident that this summer’s aerial survey will show that it has rebounded to 1200 animals… the only down side is that this might lead to an increase in Nunavut hunting quotas at the very time that this population is depleted by an El Nino event augmented by climate change… pretty complicated world.
But, for today, the north wind is finally here.