A Brief History of Polar Bears and Churchill
1619 – Jens Munck becomes first European explorer to over-winter in the Churchill area, first polar bear is encountered and shot, crew falls ill and dies likely from ingesting uncooked polar bear meat
1717 – Fort Churchill trading post established
1730 – Prince of Wales Fort construction begins, for the next forty years, the fur trade at Churchill will experience its peak years
1784-1930 – After the destruction of Prince of Wales Fort, HBC re-establishes Fort Churchill on west side of Churchill River. Trade is minimal for the next 150 years.
1920s – Arctic fox and other furs high record prices, trapping activity increases in the north. Few polar bears taken however as they are rarely encountered and are not good fox bait…
1949 – Polar bear hunting banned aside from traditional use
1952 – Pending closure of York Factory announced, effectively signalling the end of the fur trade, while polar bears were never a cherished pelt (two polar bear hides were worth only the equivalent of one beaver skin), still almost twice the current global population of polar bears were harvested over the 250 years of the fur trade and whaling industry in the Canadian north.
1953 – Polar bears narrowly escape a significantly worse fate, after Britain declines Canada’s offer of the Churchill area for use as a testing site for their first atomic bomb, the 25-kiloton ‘Blue Danube’ (and eleven more tests after that).
1956 – U.S. and Canadian military test a variety of explosives in the Churchill area, including test bombing the tundra to see if bombs could be used to create foxholes in the permafrost, and other fun stuff like that…
1957 – Churchill Rocket Research Range formally established (first activity takes place in 1954 though…)
1960 – After considering Southampton and Coates Islands, researcher Charles Jonkel decides that Churchill would be a good location to study polar bears. Polar bear research is born! Photographer Fred Bruemmer accompanies Jonkel as an unpaid assistant.
1964 – U.S. military effectively withdraws from Churchill, fewer officers take home polar bear rugs but there is also no ‘buffer zone’ between Churchill and its polar bears. Bears quickly become a problem in town.
1966 – Canadian Wildlife Service begins long-term research program. Aerial census of Hudson Bay and James Bay polar bears takes place the following year.
1967 – Research traps find that Cape Churchill is a significantly more populated area than Southampton Island, research efforts are permanently focused on western Hudson Bay.
1968 – IUCN/Polar bear specialist group is formed; over-hunting and pollution are identified as causes potentially leading to the polar bear’s extinction worldwide. As well, Operation polar bear, now called polar bear Alert, is started in Churchill as a response to increased bear activity around the community.
1970 – Fred Bruemmer heads out to Cape Churchill tower to take pictures of polar bears. Polar bear photography is born!
Early 1970s – Churchill residents begin offering tundra tours along the old military trails east of Churchill, mostly with scavenged military machinery – track vehicles, deuces, etc
1971 – Interrnational Fund for Animal Welfare raises money to relocated problem bears from Churchill by helicopter. This practice continues today funded by the Province of Manitoba and visiting film crews.
1976 – International Agreement on the Conservation of polar bears is ratified by all five IUCN ‘polar bear nations’ – Canada, United States, Soviet Union, Norway and Denmark; prohibited aerial hunting and harvesting of mothers with cubs.
1976 – Ten years of polar bears research – by this time, 1500 polar bears have been ear-tagged and handled, approximiately 36% of the population has been re-captured at least once.
1976 – On advice from Bishop Omer Robidoux, Brian Ladoon travels north to rescue 19 Canadian Eskimo Dogs and establishes kennel at Camp Nanuq, Churchill
1979 – First Tundra Buggy built – primarily for goose hunting; held together by rivets, willpower and whiskey.
1979 – Brian Ladoon asked to move kennel from Camp Nanuq due to high incidence of polar bear activity, 30 Canadian Eskimo Dogs relocated to Mile 4/Golf Balls site
1982 – National Geograhic documentary ‘Polar Bear Alert’, brings international attention to Churchill and effectively signals the start of polar bear tourism. Camera crew baits cage with seal oil to make bears seem more aggressive…
1984 – Photographer Fred Treul seriously injured by polar bear at Cape Churchill.
1985 – Final rocket launched at Churchill Research Rocket Range, while military has been absent for years – this is regarded as the official end of the Fort Churchill era
1989 – First playful interactions witnessed at Brian Ladoon’s dog yard, next interactions would not occur until 1992 when they became a more regular occurrence
1996 – Manitoba Natural Resources charges Brian Ladoon with baiting and feeding polar bears, letters of support delivered include professional photographers Norbert Rosing and Galen Rowell
1996 – Wapusk National Park established to primarily to protect the maternity denning area of the western Hudson Bay polar bears
1999 – First starving polar bear/global warming picture appears in Time Magazine
1999 – Tundra Buggy expands operation to 12 Wildlife Management Area permits and build ‘new style’ of buggies. Two primary operators left – Tundra Buggy and Great White Bear Tours.
2000 – Polar bear cam started by Dennis Compayre and Tundra Buggy Tours, a large male polar bear named Dancer becomes a regular feature.
2004 – Churchill landfill pending closure, new recycling and waste transfer station opened with unfortunately mixed results
2010 – Polar bears discover that fermenting grain piles make for a pretty good time
2011 – Manitoba Conservation removes polar bears, including Dancer, from Brian Ladoon’s Canadian Eskimo Dog kennel, now estimated at 160+ dogs
2012 – Churchill landfill re-opened with limited access
2014 – Journey to Churchill zoo exhibit planned to open in Winnipeg, life goes on…