Churchill is built on some prime polar bear real estate. Each year, the bears’ natural northward progression leads many of them to and through town! To manage this unique challenge, Churchill has developed the Polar Bear Alert program.
Beginning in 1967, when the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources decided to ‘study polar bear occurrences to determine how many bears became problems annually’ and by 1969, the first polar bear patrol was put into action in the Churchill area.
Within a few years, the patrol started airlifting problem bears, primarily with funds provided by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. A variety of locations were tried with differing degrees of success. Eventually, relocation to the North River area, about 50 kilometres northwest of Churchill, proved to be the most successful. Relocation, simply continued the bear’s natural progression northward.
However, by the mid-1970s, the situation had changed considerably. The Fort Churchill military base (near the present day airport) and several other smaller coastal communities were abandoned at that time. The reduced hunting pressures, both traditional and illegal, combined with the removal of the Fort Churchill dump, a definite bear attractant outside of town limits, resulted in a drastic increase in polar bear activity within the community of Churchill!
By 1976, 220 bear sightings were recorded in the Churchill area (up from only 76 in 1967). As well, the 65 problem bears in residential sites were the highest number on record.
As a result of concerns expressed by mayor and council at the time, a local Churchill Polar Bear Committee, consisting of Churchill residents, members of council and Provincial Wildlife Branch representatives, was established. By 1977, this committee submitted fourteen recommendations and urged the acquisition of Building D-20 at Fort Churchill as a temporary holding place.
The facility, designed to hold up to 23 bears, opened in June 1980. With over 1,000 bears handled, the Polar Bear Alert program has worked very effectively at managing this human-bear overlap.