This whole season has been about a week ahead of last year so it is not a real surprise that the bay froze about a week earlier than last year. Yesterday, we watched the mass exodus of polar bears out onto the sea ice. Most of the day consisted of yellow bear butts wobbling and weaving out towards the floe edge.
Over the past week, there have been daily highs around minus 10-15C and some fairly consistent north winds. This combination is all we need for the ice to freeze along Cape Churchill. From wind and greasy waves last Thursday to a thin band of ice along the shore by Saturday, you could see the end was near.
Most years though a late season south wind ‘saves’ bear season but this wind arrived about a day or two late this year, the ice is now locked in from what I can see. By Monday, ice floes clung to the shore and the smaller bays near Churchill were almost locked in. A north wind that night and the next day then sealed the deal.
Yesterday, there was a constant stream of polar bears crossing Cape Merry, the point between town and the Churchill River. Polar Bear Alert officers hazed some of them to speed their departure but really, once the ice is here, there is not much incentive to stay around. By 3pm, you could see twelve bears out on the ice between Eskimo Point to the west and Miss Piggy beach. Most of these were sub-adults, some of which may or may not wander back into town occasionally, but also a mother and cubs was out there, nestled against an ice hummock, sitting back and nursing her cubs.
After countless bear encounters, freezeup is still one of my favourite moments of the season. Watching bears through binoculars out on the sea ice is a really neat way to bear watch. They are just out there doing their natural thing and being bears, trying to catch the scent of a seal, checking for preferred hunting spots on the ice and generally investigating almost anything.
Freezeup is kind of a community event here. All day as the bears leave, residents cruise along Cape Merry road and park behind the Town Complex to watch. There is a bit of a collective exhale as another bear season comes to an end and life settles back to the quiet still of winter. There is a bit of sadness to see the waters frozen up for another year, a bit of elation that snowmobile season is upon us and a general satisfaction to see the bears back out in their icy home. Its kind of a fun day to stop and chat and relax.
Of course, the bay itself is not frozen yet, luckily it doesn’t take much ice to make bears happy. The term freezeup just applies to the first couple miles of ice that form along the 50 miles of Cape Churchill. Northwinds push this ice in and the combination of freshwater ice from the river and shore ice along the bay make this the earliest spot to freeze. The bay itself will not completely freeze over until mid to late December.
Best of all, in classic bear and classic mother nature fashion, the bears have now just left at the very start of Polar Bear Week, a week of webcams and scientists explaining the threats that climate change pose to the Churchill bears. This should be an interesting week without any bears to film – I might actually even tune in to see what they talk about!
All that is left now is for Polar Bear Alert to empty out the polar bear jail. This should occur within the next day or two, hopefully we will get some pictures to share on the blog. It is another neat thing to watch, almost an epilogue to the season.
A bit of a confusing event is occurring today though, there is a bear lift scheduled for 2pm today, sponsored by a visiting film crew. In the past few years, tour companies and film crews have begun sponsoring bear lifts as part of their visit. It is good in the sense that it helps Manitoba Conservation’s budget but, on the other hand, if they fly the bear to North River, it just means he will have to walk back south to Churchill to get on the ice!
If they fly him east, as they seem to have done with a bear in the past couple days, he should be fine but it still begs the question… why are we still flying bears when the ice is here? Just open the cage and let him out, he will leave, trust me – we could have giant pig roasts on the coast right now with a south wind and the bears would still not come back. The ceiling is incredibly low today and flying this bear puts not only the bear at risk but the pilot as well, not impressed.
Manitoba Conservation needs to get back to the time when we relocated bears based on the well-being of the animal not simply on how much money can be saved or which film crew is in town.
As you may have guessed from my blogs this year, I am disappointed with the new approach that Manitoba Conservation is taking with the Polar Bear Alert program. I will be circulating a petition to encourage Manitoba Conservation to increase its communication with Churchill residents and local operators/stakeholders. Many Churchillians are concerned with some of the events of this season and now would be a good time for us all to sit down and figure out what practices are best for the bears.
My initial ideas for this petition include:
- new protocols for handling/relocating mothers with cubs
- new and clearly communicated management plan for Brian Ladoon’s kennel
- a clear definition of what areas and which bears Polar Bear Alert will handle
- in partnership with Parks Canada, develop a clear management plan for Cape Merry National History Site bear monitoring
- soliciting explore.org to set up perimeter cameras to monitor bears in the rocks near Churchill, both for the safety of officers and bears
- the removal of Tundra Vehicles from the Bird Cove and Ithaca areas, these are places used by local residents in the summer and should not be covered with buggy tracks. I suggest relocating Lazy Bear’s two permits to the traditional WMA tundra vehicle area for 2013.
- establish a community advisory panel of Churchill residents to focus on greater communication between Polar Bear Alert and the community
That’s what I would like to do, anyway – worth a shot I suppose.