Polar Bears of Churchill

Polar bear tours are primarily held in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a provincially managed zone 25 kilometres east of Churchill. It has traditionally been one of the areas in which polar bears gather each fall. It has also become an area where tundra vehicles filled with eager tourists gather each fall.

There are eighteen permits issued for use by tundra vehicles. Starting at a place called Halfway Point, the polar bear viewing trails stretch another ten kilometres east to Gordon Point and the location of the original tundra vehicle lodge.

Many of the tundra vehicle trails near Gordon Point were first used when it was a military training grounds. The United States military first moved into the Churchill area in 1943. Practically overnight, they set up a tent city in Hudson Square, right in the middle of town and eventually developed an entire military community near the present-day airport. In the early years, the Churchill area was primarily used for cold weather exercises to test both men and equipment. One of the few landmarks in the Wildlife Management Area is First Tower, a military observation tower, located near Gordon Lake. It is a holdover of the cold weather exercises held in this area. By the late sixties, the bulk of the military presence in Churchill had departed. With this decline in activity, polar bears began appearing in and around the community of Churchill.

Soon, a few local residents began offering polar bear watching tours on assorted off-road and track vehicles. This started a wildlife viewing industry that is now over twenty five years old.

One of the more famous entrepreneurs was Len Smith, creator of the world famous Tundra Buggies®. These vehicles were first featured in the 1982 National Geographic special ‘Polar Bear Alert’. Tundra vehicles based on his design are now the primary means of viewing polar bears.

On average, about 300 polar bears pass through or near this area each year. Bears that choose to stay, generally become acclimatized within only twenty four hours, gaining confidence and an ease amidst the tundra vehicles.

Polar Bears of Churchill – Population Changes

Polar bears are coming ashore earlier in western Hudson Bay. The ice breaks up around June 25th now as opposed to July 15th.

However, polar bears actually come ashore about three weeks after ‘break-up’. Break-up occurs in early July while most bears do not come ashore until the end of July, sometimes even August. Conversely, they go out on the ice about one or two weeks earlier than what is considered freeze-up (usually leaving around November 14 whereas freezeup is considered November 21).

Realistically, this means they are on land for about 15 weeks. During this time, they mostly remain in a state of ‘walking hibernation’. Their system slows down and consumes less energy. However, this does not mean that they are fasting. They eat lyme grass, berries, peat, kelp and whatever they can find. Researchers at the La Perouse Bay Snow Goose Camp have watched young bears and mothers with cubs routinely hunt snow geese, basically chasing them up against willow bushes, stomping on a few of them and then sitting down for a nice meal of goose guts.

Of course, none of these meals compare to a good and fat seal pup and, therefore, an early break-up remains critical to survival and to continued cub production. Scientists believe that an early break-up of even one week will translate to a 3-8% reduction in the annual survival rate, primarily affecting old bears and lone subadults.

Researchers believe that warming springs are primarily due to the effects of global climate change.

Massive hydroelectric projects have change the runoff patterns and freshwater content of Hudson Bay. While summer runoff has not significantly increased (6% more), winter runoff into Hudson Bay has changed drastically. There is now over 50% more runoff between November and April than prior to hydroelectric development. That translates to about an extra inch of freshwater covering the entire bay. To me, that seems like a lot of water!

There has been some suggestion that this could also be affecting break-up. However, little research has been done in this area and its effects remain unclear.

While break-up is critical and changing, freeze-up is much less so and not changing. Contrary to several media reports, there has never been a study showing a significant change in freeze-up of Hudson Bay. The biggest problem with a late freeze-up is an increase in polar bear activity near the community of Churchill. Its colder, bears are more active and getting bored.

It is important to get back on the ice but life is still tough out there. Hunting is sparse through the winter months and polar bears still spend much of their time in a state of walking hibernation or even hunkered down, waiting out severe weather. Polar bears in western Hudson Bay do not reach their lowest weights until March, so when you think about it, the polar bears we see in ‘bear season’ are really still in modest condition.
Bears do not do the majority of their hunting until spring, pretty much starting in April when the ringed seal pup birthing season starts. Seal pups are about 50% fat and an easy meal for polar bears. In fact, about 80% of a bear’s diet consists of ringed seals under one year of age.

Despite a long-term decline in adult body-condition, first year cub survival actually seems to be increasing in the area. From a roughly 65% survival rate 25 years ago, it fell to 50% in the late 80s and climbed up to 75% in the late 90s. It is possible that this is a result of warming spring temperatures. Young cubs do not have the insulative qualities needed to survive harsh temperatures. Warm springs should help them but, of course, only in the short-term.

This increase in cub survival coincided with a change in cub production for the population as a whole. Twenty five years ago, females used to wean their cubs after 16 months in Hudson Bay, lately, they seem to have returned to the 2.5 year cycle similar to other polar bear populations. While the birth rate has decreased, it is still higher than most other polar bear populations, however the recent population study indicates that it is not keeping up with current mortality rates.

Only time will tell whether this is another cycle in a larger pattern or the first stages of a population collapse triggered by global climate change and human-influenced development.

Polar Bear Videos From Churchill

1957 Documentary on Polar Bear Hunting – This one is from Alaska but shows the views towards polar bears in the 1950s. This dates before polar bears were ‘discovered’ in Churchill both by polar bear research and by tourism.

1961 Radio Documentary – Polar Bears Need Conservation – We have been concerned about the polar bear for fifty years now. Population concerns were first raised due to over-hunting and a lack of knowledge of polar bear habitat. Although after 50 years, Inuit still seem to remain skeptical over polar bear research!

1971 Documentary on Operation Bearlift for Churchill’s Polar Bears – Churchill began relocating bears by helicopter in 1971, an initiative spearheaded by Brian Davies of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

1972 Documentary about Polar Bear Research in Churchill Manitoba – This documentary shows the initial techniques of polar bear research in the Churchill area.

1981 Documentary about the Polar Bears of Churchill – Canada Broadcast Corporation Archives – Fifth Estate – ‘Tourism may yet be the salvation for Churchill. 10,000 people come here each year…’

1981 Documentary on Sport Hunting Polar Bears in the North – Based in Holman (Ulukhaktok), Northwest Territories, this documentary looks at hunting’s effect on the northern economy. Incidentally, the first ‘Grolar’ bear or grizzly/hybrid was shot near Holman, NWT.

1999 Documentary Climate Change Threatens Polar Bears – In 1999, climate change and polar bears were first connected in the mainstream media.

2007 Documentary – Counting Polar Bears – Determining hunting quotas for Nunavut and the growing conflict between Inuit views and federal scientific research. Features Jimmy Mukpah, one of the best polar bear hunters in Arviat. Eventually, the quota would be drastically cut and essentially signal the end of sport hunting in the Kivalliq Region.

Polar Bear Facts

- Polar bears inhabit the circumpolar regions around the north pole, including northern Russia, the Canadian Arctic, the coast of Alaska, Greenland (Denmark) and Norway’s Spitzbergen Island. 25,000-30,000 polar bears are thought to exist worldwide with Canada home to around 15,000 of these animals.

- They spend the vast majority of their lives on sea ice with only a few populations spending significant time on land. The exception being pregnant females who more commonly venture onto land to prepare their maternity dens.

- One of the most effectively managed arctic species, polar bears are not endangered. However, as a top predator, they are considered high risk to environmental change, including pollution, climate change and human impact, such as overhunting.

- There are twenty partially discrete polar bear populations known to exist. Three of these populations frequent Hudson Bay – western Hudson Bay (extending from the Manitoba/Ontario border to Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut), southern Hudson Bay (James Bay) and Foxe Basin (at the northwestern edge of the bay).

- This population is one of the most accessible in the world. In fact, much of our knowledge of polar bear biology and behaviour comes from research conducted in the Churchill area. The Canadian Wildlife Service has over thirty years of continuous
research data about Churchill’s polar bears, one of the longest research programs in existence.

- Based on CWS research, the breakup of Hudson Bay is thought to occur about 2.5 weeks earlier than in the early 1980s. This leaves the bears less time on the ice during their prime hunting season (April through July) and an estimated 22kgs (50lbs) lighter

- Adult males congregate along the coastal regions and gravel spits. Several of these spits near Churchill have been designated as polar bear resting areas, including sections of Eskimo Point and Gordon Point.

- Females (pregnant or not) and some males (definitely not pregnant) spend time in earthen dens during the summer…it is cooler there and there are less bugs.

- April through July are the most productive hunting months for Churchill’s bears. Young seals are high in fat and not that experienced with predators. Therefore, the timing of breakup is critical for polar bears. If the ice breaks up even a week early, this may cost the bears up to 10kg (22lbs) in fat stores.

- After months of feeding, bears are very fat when they finally swim ashore. With up to 4” of blubber, the bears are quite buoyant. This makes swimming a lot easier but diving a little difficult; their rump bobbing up to the surface much like a cork – not a very strategic position!

- Once on land, bears spend the vast majority (70-90%) of their time simply resting. Given the right conditions, however, they forage on berries, sedges, grasses, kelp, snowmobile seats and almost anything else.

- Polar bears are highly intelligent and adaptable. Bears have been seen hunting caribou, beluga whales, snowy owls, eider ducks… well, you get the picture. Along the Seal River, a polar bear was observed lunging onto the backs of passing beluga whales.

- During the summer and in times of food shortage, polar bears can enter a state of walking hibernation. They reduce their metabolism, lowering energy demands to conserve their fat stores..

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