2012 was an up and down year for Churchill’s polar bears.
Winter – Well, polar bears really don’t do all that much in January, other than wait for longer days and wait out blizzards (contrary to popular belief, polar bears are not ‘thrilled’ with -40C). The bears got out on the ice on November 21st in 2011 (pretty much the ‘new normal’) so it seems life was okay. The down-side is that fur prices rose significantly, including polar bears. Mostly driven by new demand in China, so we will see how that all plays out.
Spring – While temperatures were not all that bad, things sounded a little quiet at Watchee Lodge last year and during the 2011 population studies, there were reports of very few yearlings and cubs sighted. This is a bit of a disturbing trend and we are all anxiously awaiting some positive reports from the denning area this season.
Temperatures seemed pretty normal in the spring which is actually good news for the bears. Without any seriously abnormal weather events, their spring seal hunting should have gone fairly well.
A joint study between Nunavut and Manitoba was released that indicated a population of approximately 1,000 polar bears between the Ontario border and Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.
Summer – The bears generally came ashore in the last week of July. Some females were reported ashore around July 7th while other bears, mostly large males, rode the ice well south and likely came ashore in early August. In general, the bears seemed to be coming off the ice a bit further south than traditionally observed.
Still, there were several bears summering around Churchill this year and most travellers had a chance to see a bear. There were a number of calls to the Polar Bear Alert program, however, many of these were likely about the same bears who hung around just outside of town. The beluga whales had a great year in the Churchill River and stayed quite late, some spotted even in October. With beluga whales seemingly proliferating in Hudson Bay, this should also be good news for summer bears searching for whale carcasses.
Fall – There was a much publicized lack of sea ice in the western Arctic, however, this record low ice did not really affect Churchill’s bears – they don’t have ice in September, anyway. The temperatures over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas remained higher than normal but Hudson Bay was actually quite normal or even a little below.
More good news arrived with the ‘discovery’ of a new polar bear denning area in the southeast portion of western Hudson Bay (yes, that is confusing). As well, reports from Nanuk Lodge in SW Hudson Bay indicated several healthy looking mothers and cubs along that part of the coast.
Bear Season – October seemed a bit cooler than normal but October is always pretty unpredictable. Some mothers and cubs were spotted early in the season and visitors saw a pretty reasonable 10-15 bears during their visits. Several sub-adult bears and lone females were spotted this season but overall, fewer females with cubs.
Bear season never really received a major peak in polar bears this year, however, numbers were very steady with visitors seeing about 20-25 bears during their stay. Freeze-up was a bit strange. It was almost like we had three or four freeze-ups; at first, it seemed like the bears would leave early (and some did) then the ice drifted away, came back, etc and the bears finally ‘left’ on November 23rd.
December – Winter gave the bears a few early storms and some real Hudson Bay cold and by late December, Hudson Bay was completely frozen. Most bears were probably just kind of waiting things out while pregnant females gave birth to their cubs as 2013 arrived…
Overall, this seemed like a decent year for Churchill’s bears and I would say with confidence that a continued ‘severe’ decline in polar bears is not happening. There are likely 900-1000 bears along western Hudson Bay. In terms of ice, I would say that Southern Hudson Bay bears had a pretty good year as well while things were pretty tough for the bears up in Foxe Basin, northwestern Hudson Bay.