What is Polar Bear Alert?
Basically, Polar Bear Alert is a patrol of Churchill and the surrounding areas for polar bears. Usually, they do two patrols a day, checking the road system and about 8-10 polar bear traps laid out around the community.
A polar bear ‘trap’ is a giant culvert on a truck trailer. This culvert is baited with a rag dipped in seal oil, once the bear crawls in a giant steel door slams shut and the bear is transported to the polar bear jail.
The polar bear jail is an old military steel quonset hut equipped with barred cels that hold bears for up to thirty days before they are transported by helicopter north or released onto the sea ice. The helicopter bear lift is a major tourist attraction during polar bear season.
Officers also respond to calls from residents to the ‘bear hotline’ and drive our meager road system scouting for polar bears. Roaming bears will be encouraged to go around the community, swim back across the river or, if they are persistent, they will be darted and relocated north of Churchill, approximately 50km to the Seal River area.
The vast majority of bears, around 80%, are encountered in Zone 2, which stretches from the RX Road just past the Churchill dump. Others are encountered within the ‘Zone 1′ area between Cape Merry and the RX Road, which includes the Town of Churchill.
Cabin and populated areas, including Camp Nanuq, the Churchill Northern Studies Cente and Goose Creek, are also part of Zone 2. Zone 3 is the interception area just east of the dump. These zones are partolled by Manitoba Conservation Officers with the town and imediate surrounding areas, obviously, taking priority.
The program has been successful at reducing polar bear fatalities and human-bear encounters in the Churchill area. It is best known for the co-operative patrol with RCMP, Churchill Fire Department and local volunteers that allows children to trick-or-treat on Halloween.
The program essentially began in 1967, when the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources and Transportation Services decided to ‘study polar bear occurences to determine how many bears became problems annually’.
By 1969, a ‘Polar Bear Patrol’ was put into action in the Churchill area. Its goal was to ‘clear the area of bears by trapping and transporting them to another location or shooting those identified as problem bears.’
The patrol started airlifting bears around 1971, primarily with funds provided by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. A variety of locations were tried with different degrees of success. Eventually, relocation to the North River area seemed most successful as it simply continued the ears’ natural progression northward.
However, in the mid-1970s, the situation changed considerably. The Fort Churchill military base and several other smaller, coastal communities were abandoned throughout the 1970s. With the removal of the Fort Churchill dump and the lessened impact of hunting pressures, both traditional and illegal, the numbers of bears in and around Churchill drastically increased.
By 1976, 220 bears sightings were recorded in the Churchill/Fort Churchill area (up from only 76 in 1967) and the 65 problem bears in residential sites were the highest number on record.
As a result of concerns expressed by themayor and council at the time, a local Churchill Polar Bear Committee, consisting of Churchill residents and representatives of the council and the Provincial Wildlife Branch, was established.
By 1977, this committee submitted 14 recommendations and urged the acquisition of Building D-20 at Fort Churchill as a temporary holding place. This facility opened in June 1980 and holds up to 23 bears (although up to 29 can be housed if necessary).
Over recent years, the polar bear jail has been refurbished with a new roof and even air conditioning for polar bears captured in the summer (although I don’t believe this has ever been used…). Other improvements include a new entry area to improve safety for officers and an interpretive sign explaining the polar bear alert program (not quite as well as this blog does though…).
And that’s about it for Polar Bear Alert.