Polar Bear History

Polar Bear Timeline

1500 BC – Earliest trace of human activity, Tunit tent rings near Churchill River, Hubbard Point and Knights Hill. Much of the current Hudson Bay coastline is under a much larger body of water, the Tyrrell Sea.

1613 – Sir Thomas Button is the first European to visit Cape Churchill. He is on an expedition to determine the fate of Henry Hudson.

1619 – Danish expedition, led by Jens Munck, become the first Europeans to overwinter in the Churchill area.

1689 – First attempt to establish a trading post at the mouth of the Churchill River. Attempt is unsuccessful.

1717 – Fort Churchill trading post established on the west side of the Churchill River. Primarily traded in furs from the northwest and a limited beluga whale fishery. Polar bear pelts remained relatively rare.

1782 – Prince of Wales Fort destroyed by three warships under the command of French Admiral La Peruse. Trade at Churchill never recovers

1783-84 – Starvation and disease drastically deplete the population of Dene hunters northwest of Churchill. Trade at Fort Churchill decrease drastically.

1795 – Oldest recorded tree damage in the maternity denning area. (Scott et al)

– Explorer and Naturalist Samuel Hearne’s observations of polar bears, including the first written record of maternity denning south of Churchill, is published, posthumously.

1820s – Polar bear maternity denning begins to shift north due to harvest activity around York Factory. This is the era of consolidation of Hudson Bay and Northwest Company.

1870 – Unofficial end of the fur trade, minimal activity at Fort Churchill trading post

1920s – Arctic fox prices drastically increase and an influx of Scandinavian, Aboriginal and German trappers head north.

– Polar bear maternity denning begins to return to southern portion with marked decline in fur trade

1930 – Railway and Port built on east shore of Churchill River, modern era of Churchill begins

– Province of Manitoba passes an act protecting the dens of all fur-bearing animals while upholding the rights of Aboriginals to hunt polar bears for their own use.

1933 – George Spence and his son, Jarvis, find two orphaned cubs and sell them to the Hudson’s Bay Company for $25 each. Their trapping and hunting areas lies directly within the polar bear maternity denning zone.

1942 – The first aerial survey of the Manitoba coast is undertaken. One or two polar bears were spotted on the estuary of the Nelson River while over forty were counted along the hundred miles from York Factory to Churchill. (source: Gerald Malahea, Manitoba’s First Director of Wildlife)

– US Military establishes presence in Churchill, setting up a wall tent camp in the middle of town.

1944 – First semi-permanent military camp established at Akudlik Marsh. Soon after, construction of Fort Churchill military base is initiated

1946 – Canada offers a tract of northern Manitoba to the United Kingdom and United States as a significant atomic testing site. This offer is declined in favour of an Australian site, Woomera. The area offered, incidentally, lies with present-day Wapusk National Park and is centred around Broad River, the heart of the maternity denning area.

1950s – A system of registered traplines was established in the area of York Factory in the early 1950s and trappers were encouraged to limit their polar bear kills. However, from 1952-57, an average of 17 polar bears were taken in the denning area annually.

– Military maneuvers and cold weather munitions testing take place along Cape Churchill. Present-day Tundra Vehicle trails are roughly based on routes established by these military exercises. Coastline, including portions of the denning area, are occasionally sprayed by plane with bug repellent, likely DDT.

– Unofficial trade in polar bear skins via military personnel

1954 – Wildlife regulations were passed that made it illegal for non-Natives to hunt polar bears and for anyone to trade of barter in polar bear hides.

1956 – All non-subsistence polar bear hunting is banned in Manitoba

1957 – York Factory trading post is officially closed.

– Churchill Rocket Research Range is officially opened. Until its closure in 1985, over 3000 sounding rockets would be fired (mostly over the maternity denning area). Baseline information was gathered on the ionosphere and auroral activity.

1962 – Richard Harrington conducts first polar bear research in Canada, travelling with Inuit hunters in Resolute Bay, Northwest Territories

1964 – Official withdrawal of significant military presence in Churchill begins. Military ‘buffer zone’ is removed and polar bears begin to move into the Churchill area, specificall the three garbage dumps near the community.

1966 – First polar bear research conducted in Churchill area. Canadian Wildlife Service team lead by Charles Jonkel with Fred Bruemmer and Ken Coldwell as assistants

– ‘Linda’ was first handled in the Churchill area at one year of age. She was recaptured for the next three years at the Churchill dump. Consequently, she would return each year until 1985, raising several cohorts at the dump.

1967 – Prior to 1967, polar bears were dispatched by RCMP officers. Polar bear patrol program initiated.

1968 – Quotas were established for Inuit settlements in NWT (Nunavut) – formalized in 1970

1969 – Polar Bear Patrol is established, object is to reduce the local polar bear population by trapping and transporting them to another location or shooting bears that were a problem.

– Dan Guravich, eventual co-founder of Tundra Buggy Tours, sees his first polar bear while crossing the Northwest Passage on the ‘SS Manhattan’

1970 – Ian Stirling joins Canadian Wildlife Service and would become the most influential polar bear researcher in North America.

– Dr. Charles Jonkel confirms the existence of a large polar bear maternity denning area south of Churchill.

Early 1970s – Al Chartier and Boris Ozurkiewicz run small scale tours in the Gordon Point area. Photographer Leonard Larue is Al Chartier’s main client.

– North Star Tours begins to take clients out to view bears on the road system east of Churchill. They also charter flights for tourists to fly over Cape Churchill.

1971 – Late freezeup in 1971, polar bear encounters increase around the town of Churchill, 24 bears flown out that year. From 1971-75, 40 polar bears are ‘bearlifted’ out of town with the vast majority by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

1972 – Photographer Fred Bruemmer travels to Cape Churchill to photograph polar bears.

1973 – Brian Ladoon purchases Malamute dog team and establishes small kennel at Camp Nanuq cottage area.

1974 – On the advice of Bishop Robidoux, Ladoon travels north to Repulse Bay and Igloolik to find Canadian Eskimo Dogs.

1975 – Brian Ladoon charters DC-3 to Hall Beach and Igloolik to purchase more dogs.

1976 – 220 bear sightings and 65 problem bears were the highest on record. As a result, the Churchill Polar Bear Committee is formed and citizens of Churchill are asked for their suggestions.

– Canadian Wildlife Service establishes observation tower at Cape Churchill. Constructed from a former Manitoba Natural Resource fire lookout tower.

1977 – Churchill Polar Bear Committee submitted 14 recommendations, including the establishment of the Polar Bear Jail in D-20.

1978 – Dan Guravich contracts Boris Ozurkiewicz and his track machine to photograph polar bears. After mechanical problems near First Tower, the experiment ends with harsh feelings. During this trip, Guravich meets Len Smith and plan to build the first ‘Tundra Buggy’.

– Churchill Northern Studies Centre established at Akudlik Marsh

– Cape Churchill Wildilfe Management Area established

1979 – Brian Ladoon and Dwight Allen take photographer Dan Guravich to the maternity denning area to photograph bears. It is a cold and long trip that provides little results.

– Brian Ladoon’s Canadian Eskimo Dog Kennel is established at Mile 5 (at that time vacant crown land).

– First Tundra Buggy tour is run out to ‘First Tower’ area. The first clients include Victor Emmanuel Tours, a company that focuses primarily on birding tours but had connections with Dan Guravich. Joe Van Os was working for victor emmanuel at the time…

1980 – First tourists visit Cape Churchill by Tundra Buggy. Dan Guravich, Len Smith and Roy Bukowsky are partners in the venture.

1981 – National Geographic Polar Bear Alert documentary is filmed in Churchill and out at Cape Churchill.   Certain scenes are slightly exaggerated with the assistance of helpful locals and seal oil.

1982 – Manitoba Government began to monitor illegal hunting along the coast of Hudson Bay. Steve Miller hired for this contract (Wrigley, Polar Bear Encounters Churchill)

– BBC’s Polar Bear Alert documentary is aired and Dan Guravich and Richard Davies’s book ‘Lords of the Arctic’ is released.

– Dennis Compayre hired as the first buggy driver. Len Smith was building second buggy so needed someone to drive Buggy One.

– D-20, the Polar Bear Jail, is completed and operational, holding 16 individual bears and 4 family groups.

– Roy Bukowsky steps back from Tundra Buggy due to philosophical differences between him and Guravich about food conditioning bears.

1983 – Poor ice year, the ice broke up fairly early and froze late. Tom Mutanen attacked and killed in December. 191 calls to the Polar Bear hotline, 65 polar bears handled.

– Second buggy driver, Paul Ratson,hired full-time

– Photographer Fred Treul is severly injured by a curious bear during the Cape Churchill photography tour.

1984 – LIFE Magazine article about Cape Churchill trip continues to build the hype about Churchill’s polar bears.

1985 – Linda is relocated to the Rio Grande Zoo in Albequerque, New Mexico. Linda had, at least, 11 cubs in the wild – of these, four died, three were sent to zoos. Linda would remain in New Mexico until her death in 1999 at age 34.

– Buggy 3 and 5 are purchased from the Columbia Icefields. They are track vehicles but within a couple seasons are converted to wheels.

1988 – Buggy 7 and Buggy 8 are built for the expanding tourism industry. These vehicles are designed for 55 passengers.

– Vacant building at Cockles Point is claimed by Dwight Allen and Dan Foubert. This building would be developed into White Whale Lodge, the first remote lodge to offer polar bear viewing and limited walking tours.

– The Province of Manitoba establishes rules and permitting system for the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area.

1991 – Don Walkoski receives a permit to operate a vehicle in the CWMA. Lil’ Blue, a converted 4×4 van, services film crews and professional photographers. He receives a second permit soon after for a service vehicle.

– White Whale Lodge opens to the public and begins offered eye-level polar bear viewing experiences

1992 – First raid on Ladoon’s kennel is conducted by Manitoba Natural Resources officers.

– Polar Bears Alive, a non-profit organization aimed at protecting polar bear habitat and reducing invasive research techniques, is formed by Dan Guravich.

1994 – First polar bears playing with dogs photograph begins circulating. Photographer Norbert Rosing, at that time a nurse in Churchill, begins a long partnership with Brian Ladoon.

– Watchee Lodge opens for its first client, Remi Marion. Watchee is located at a vacant military installation south of Churchill and along the Spence family trapline.

– ChurchillWild’s Seal River Lodge opens to the north of Churchill. Over the next ten years, it will emerge as the leading luxury ecolodge focused on walking with polar bears.

1996 – Wapusk National Park established after ten year negotiation process, intent is to protect the coastal summer habitat of WH bears and the core of the maternity denning area

1998 – Manitoba Conservation issues a permit to Great White Bear tours for a remote tundra lodge west of Gordon Point. A new access trail is established.

– The ‘new style’ of Tundra Buggies are built in Churchill, an additional six permits are issued to Len Smith as compensation for the Great White Bear tundra lodge.

1999 – Global warming and polar bears are first connected in the international media.

– First feature-length IMAX movie filmed in Churchill under the guidance of local guides Dennis Compayre and Chris Watson.

– Territory of Nunavut formed, all marine areas of Hudson Bay become Inuit-owned lands

2000 – Len Smith sells Tundra Buggy tours to a consortium fronted by Frontiers North Adventures and International Wildlife Adventures.

– Dennis Compayre partners with Africam and Tundra Buggy to launch the Polar Bear Cam. It features livestreaming video of Churchill’s polar bear season. A polar bear known as ‘Dancer’ gains a certain degree of celebrity. He would return to Churchill for the next 13 bear seasons.

2002 – Tourism numbers fall drastically as a result of changes in travel patterns by American tourists due to security concerns after the 9/11.

– Manitoba releases the Polar Bear Protection Act.

– White Whale Lodge burns to the ground in mid-November. There are no injuries, however, a Churchill bear season icon and historic building are lost.

2004 – Polar Bears Alive is re-organized by Robert Buchanan as Polar Bears International.

– Starving bear image appears on cover of TIME Magazine. Western Hudson Bay bears are utilized as the poster child for environmental movement.

– A researcher is attacked by a polar bear at Cape Churchill while disembarking from a helicopter.

2006 – Study released citing 22% decline in Western Hudson Bay polar bear population between 1988 and 2004

2007 – Polar Bears International assumes control of the polar bear cam and begins to expand the involvement of zoos and aquariums in bear season.

2008 – Province of Manitoba declares polar bears ‘endangered’ in Manitoba. It is now illegal to hunt, harass and ‘disturb’ polar bears along the coast of Hudson Bay

– A global market crash once again affect tourism numbers and spending in Churchill. Travel numbers stay low for the next two years. This triggers a new era of ‘consolidation’ in the Churchill tourism industry.

– Lazy Bear Lodge begins to actively market polar bear viewing tours on converted 4×4 school buses.

– Inuit near Arviat, the next community north of Churchill, continue to report more bear sightings and become increasingly vocal that the population may be growing not declining.

2010 – Arctic Kingdom works with Arviat-based business to establish polar bear viewing tours just north of the Manitoba-Arviat border

2011 – Manitoba Conservation renews its efforts to remove polar bears from Brian Ladoon’s kennel at Mile 5.

– Explore.org and Polar Bears International partner to expand the polar bear cam and establish remote cameras in Wapusk National Park.

– Government of Nunavut commissioned aerial survey of Western Hudson Bay area cites bear population at 1050 animals.

– ChurchillWild expands operations to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge east of the Nelson River

2013 – First polar bears removed from the wild and relocated to the Assiniboine Zoo’s International Polar Bear Conservancy Centre. Two attacks occur this season, neither fatal; however, two bears are killed by Conservation officers and three more relocated to Assiniboine Park Zoo (two are orphaned cubs).

– The development of Polar Bear Provincial Park is included in the Manitoba Government throne speech. A brief consultation occurs late in December.

– Operations at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge are expanded. Cape Tatnum polar bear industry begins to develop.

– ‘New’ polar bear maternity denning area recorded along Cape Tatnum, larger than previously believed

2014 – Consultations continue for Polar Bear Provincial Park

– Churchill Polar Bear Committee meets to review Manitoba Conservation’s Polar Bear Alert program

– Polar Bear Alley reality television show is filmed

– Journey to Churchill exhibit is opens at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Two more cubs are relocated from the Cape Tatnum area. 2013 through 2014 mark the first significant removals from the Western Hudson Bay population in over two decades.

– Inuit and Dene land swap negotations are finalized. Dene will gain land-use rights in western Nunavut while the most of the coastline from Nunavut to the Churchill River will be designated as Inuit Lands.

– Canadian Wildlife Service mark-recapture results released. Western Hudson Bay population numbers have remained stable for the past decade.

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