‘Researchers are less concerned about a slow decline in bear numbers, and more concerned about a rapid plunge in the population over just a few short years’
By Holly Glenn and Nils Isberg
Special to the Rappahannock News
Churchill, Manitoba (pop. 800), which lies on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has one of the highest concentrations of polar bears each autumn. From October into early November, these beautiful animals patiently wait here for enough sea ice to form so as to leave the land to hunt seals — not returning until the ice melts the following June or July.
This part of the Hudson Bay tends to freeze earlier in the season due to its unique geographical features and prevailing currents. So if you want to see polar bears (ursus maritimus), as we did, come to Churchill. But don’t expect much action.
Polar bears, you see, haven’t eaten any substantial prey since returning to land in mid-summer. They’ve lost the hundreds of pounds gained during their months on the sea ice, and they must conserve energy while they wait for the bay to freeze again. Mostly they snooze on the frozen tundra, albeit occasionally sparring with each other for some mild entertainment.
So how does a couple like us from Rappahannock get here? There are no roads to Churchill, and the train tracks from Winnipeg washed out more than a year ago. So tour operators mostly organize charter flights, allowing guests to choose hotels in town and take day trips onto the tundra, or else stay in two small lodges in a restricted wildlife management area outside town.
We’ve chosen the latter, opting for a more immersive experience. Our tundra lodge is essentially a ‘train’ made of 6 trailer units strung together: two bunkhouses, lounge, dining car, kitchen, and staff quarters. All the facilities are bright, clean, comfortable, and warm, which was a necessity, as the temperatures are below freezing day and night, and the wind is bitter.
Upon arrival at the wildlife management area, we transferred to our tundra buggy — our vehicle throughout our stay. Once aboard the buggy, we don’t set foot on the ground until our trip is over. The buggies ride approximately five to six feet above the ground. Visitors may not explore the wildlife area on foot, and even in town caution is advised because bears wander freely at this time of year.
Bears are curious, and commonly approach and explore the tundra lodge, even standing up on their back legs to get a closer look. Every day we see a number of bears around the lodge. In fact, on several days our departure from the lodge for our tundra tour is delayed because of so many bears around us. On each of the three days we tour the tundra, we have between 15 and 25 bear sightings: prime males weighing about 1,000 pounds (in the off-season, remember) to sub-adults on the order of 500-600 pounds, to mother bears with first and second year cubs.
Perhaps the most thrilling thing we see are polar bears “sparring.” While bears normally give one another wide berth and avoid direct interaction, we noticed one pair nudging and nuzzling each other. The interaction soon evolved into wrestling and tussling, a sort of mock-fighting. The action culminated in the bears rising up on their back legs, snow flying, pushing and shoving each other, before dropping back to all fours and wrestling on the frozen ground.
We all agree that it helps break the monotony of waiting for the bay to freeze. While the entertainment value of sparring is high, it is also somewhat risky for the bears — not so much because of potential injury, but because it burns precious calories. The bears are unable to replace calories until they can resume hunting seals from the sea ice.
Our tour operator, Frontiers North Adventures, is affiliated with Polar Bears International, a non-profit focused on research and education. PBI has a dedicated tundra buggy and locates researchers at the lodge during the fall bear season to conduct research and educational activities. Once the bears head out to sea, the PBI researchers move on to other locations, such as Svalbard, Norway, to study those polar bear populations.
Of course, a hot topic is the question of how climate change is affecting these bears. Although it is difficult for scientists to predict what will happen, their hypotheses mostly revolve around habitat loss and the availability and abundance of food. As the Earth warms, sea ice in Hudson Bay may form later in the fall and melt earlier in the summer, and it may be thinner throughout more of the year. This, essentially, is a form of habitat loss that would shorten the hunting season for the bears.
As a result, the bears would return to land without all the fat reserves they need, likely leading to starvation before the next winter hunting season. Likewise, if breeding-age female bears are unable to hunt long enough to gain sufficient weight, their reproductive cycles will be interrupted, causing a rapid decline in the number of cubs. Since females only breed every three years, the loss of even one breeding cycle could create significant ripple effects on the population.
There are also risks to their main food source, seals. If bears return to land earlier and hungrier, they may increase their predation of seal pups, which are born on land in the spring. A higher rate of seal pup predation could rapidly deplete the mature seal population in the following years, which would make seals less abundant in the winter months. In fact, the researchers are less concerned about a slow decline in bear numbers, and more concerned about a rapid plunge in the population over just a few short years.