So, I have seen this idea come up here and there… most recently, it started with Robert Buchanan from Polar Bears International and now with one of his researchers, Andrew Derocher. The idea is to feed polar bears (specifically Churchill’s bears) while they are on land to help offset the decline in sea ice. Offhand it seems insane; after you have lived in the north for a while, insane seems intriguing.
Incidentally, this idea first came up back in the day when Brian Ladoon suggested that Churchill should hang beluga whale carcasses on the beach by the Town Complex so that people could watch polar bears for free. Pretty similar to the industry growing in Kaktovik, Alaska today… For all his warts, Ladoon is a visionary. So there’s a bit of Churchill lore for you… true or not, ha.
This blog stems from an article and paper by Derocher et al about planning now for polar bear’s future (a computer model future, of course… as if there is any other these days, Hal). To quote Derocher, “The management options for northern communities like Churchill would range from doing nothing, to feeding the bears, moving them somewhere else or euthanizing them.” Oh my!
So, let me resurrect this article from the Winnipeg Free Press… Robert Buchanan’s famous ‘One, you can watch ‘em die. Two, you can shoot ‘em in the head. Three, you can move the species and help it survive’ speech.’ at this point. Sounds kind of similar, doesn’t it.
To me it just seems like my old buddy Robert – much to his credit – has turned Derocher, Stirilng and Amstrup into his talking heads. Don’t get me wrong, I like Buchanan, in the same way I like Ladoon – these guys are what they are with no apologies. But, at the same time, don’t act all surprised when no one in the north trusts NGOs, researchers or zoo people. Ladoon feeds bears, Buchanan sells whiskey – it is what it is.
So, this brings me to my point. Ladoon feeds bears! He has for almost thirty years now. He feels that his place is better than ending up in town (plus he makes some $$ along the way) so he plugs them up full of 100+lbs of chicken sometimes so they stay the night.
I was not really in favour of this… but my favourite Ladoon quote is ‘Well would you rather lock him up like Nelson Mandela?’ and I had to admit that I wouldn’t… then we talked about how Papillon was a good movie and you don’t see a lot of Steve McQueens anymore.
Anyway, I mean anyone who has been to Ladoon’s kind of knows this already. The bears follow his truck, show general obedience to him and, well, follow his truck!! If you didn’t see it, then you probably think God actually helped Ray Lewis win the Super Bowl too.
The point is that these bears are fed – they are the biggest bears in the population as he generally doesn’t ‘keep’ mothers and cubs around. Yet, they still leave when the ice forms. Maybe a week or two later, but really, for a full grown male, this makes almost no difference to their life cycle.
While we are here, its probably time to admit that polar bears have been fed and baited in Churchill for forty years now. In 1972, Fred Bruemmer, one of the greatest environmentalists/photographers went out to Cape Churchill and poured bacon fat around the tower out there. Nat Geo poured seal oil on the cage (as many did) to make the 1982 documentary Polar Bear Alert which in turn created polar bear tourism.
Every buggy used to drive out to Cape with a block of lard under the seat. Photographers were told not to shoot until everything was in place on Sunset Lake. The camp would arrive at Cape Churchill and within hours, bears would start showing up. They knew the deal.
In buggyland, things were and are more subtle. Barbeques on the camps and, at least, when I was around, there were fish rocks and night-time runs. I knew guys who crushed sardines in their buggy doors while my preferred technique was pouring Dr.Pepper on the exhaust manifold. We thought we were covert… Today, its ‘cute’ that the bear comes up to the BBQ because he ‘knows we’re protecting him’. Okay, then… whatever.
In Zac Unger’s new book ‘Never Look a Polar Bear In the Eye’, he talks about Buchanan wrinkling a potato chip bag to get the bears attention. This is as old school as Ladoon… it goes back to the lard days. Bears could not really smell lard so the plastic was left half attached, that sound attracted bears. Lard hasn’t been thrown for maybe 15 years now… its actually charming that he thought it would work.
Anyway, yes, we’ve messed with bears in every way possible in Churchill for forever… and it’s wrong. But at the same time, Churchill has ended up as the only place where no bears are hunted and polar bears generally manage to co-exist with people. Regardless of computer models, western Hudson Bay really is the best place to live if you are a polar bear.
It should be a feel-good story about animals adapting to humans, instead this last season felt like Polar Bear Alert declared war on polar bears in order to save them. Derocher proclaimed that healthy looking sub-adults were actually non-producing females… Remember when we all pretended that Freddie Mercury was not gay? That’s bear season in Churchill these days. Kind of awkward but still fun.
So, back to the point… Derocher and Buchanan have now both announced that feeding bears is an option. Brian Ladoon has more experience than any person on the planet in terms of feeding bears and their consequent behaviour (1979-2013). Manitoba Conservation removes Brian Ladoon’s bears each November for ‘public safety’.
How about this. Let’s just stop lying and study the bears at Brian’s place. Right now, Polar Bear Alert raid Ladoon’s and put his bears in jail for three weeks. They are released on the ice and walk back to Brian’s kennel! These are bears that have been fed for over a decade… they stay for a few days and then leave. Put a chip in them or something, see what they do on the ice and figure out if feeding is actually affecting their life pattern.
Anyway, you look at the cost of this annual raid – helicopters run about $1,500 per hour in the north and the raid takes a day sometimes two… plus a few Manitoba Conservation officers fly in on taxpayer’s tab the night before… plus you have about eight guys out there. Add the RCMP road block to the total… and I think a $20-25,000 tab for annually raiding Ladoon’s is not an unreasonable estimate. Probably on the low side. $20-$25,000 for a chance to study a true anomaly and possible future for Churchill’s polar bears… hmmm, tough to squander that one.
But, I’m not going to take that bet.
Increasingly, Amstrup, Stirling and Derocher sit in their insular clique and issue commentaries on what and what shouldn’t be approved in polar bear land. To the rest of us, this usually translates as ‘If we don’t do it, then it shouldn’t be done. Stand by.’ If this pisses me off, what do you think Nunavut and the rest of the north has to say about it…?
I mean you have to remember that these guys didn’t really encounter bears (other than running from helicopters) until 2006-ish when Buchanan brought them into the loop… To provide scientific data, no one is better. To comment on polar bear behaviour patterns, few are worse. Derocher et al need to chill out if they want to salvage any credibility before they ‘consult northern communities’…
I really do understand the anti-Ladoon thing, I was part of it for a long time. I followed him around town ripping down his wolf bounty posters… I stole puppies from him back in 2000… I get it, its easy to see him as a ‘bad guy’.
I understand that save the bears thing… I mean I actually called in a helicopter because some poor schlep tossed a sandwich to a bear… I was labelled as a ‘moss-hugger’ by the other buggy drivers… but we still talked about stuff.
But, to throw around the idea of overtly feeding bears while Ladoon is persecuted, is, in essence, a slap in Churchill’s face. One of many these days.