It is mid-October, and that signals a switch from grizzlies to polar bears for me. Each year, I make the journey back to Churchill, Manitoba for ‘bear season,” six weeks in October and November when polar bears and polar bear tourists gather along the coast of Hudson Bay.
Churchill is a strange place—a place of extremes—kind of like Dawson. Definitely a town that everyone should visit, but maybe only the hardy (of spirit and liver) should actually live there.
The polar bears of western Hudson Bay come ashore when the ice finally disappears, usually around the end of July. Churchill itself sits on a 50-mile cape that juts out into the bay. The wind, currents, and freshwater outflow from the Churchill River combine to make this one of the first spots to freeze-up in November. So naturally, bears congregate along the coastline.
Slightly less natural are the thousands of tourists who board giant monster trucks, known as buggies or rovers, and head out to see bears. Still less natural were the early days of tourism (aka the 1970s, early ’80s), when the tour consisted of frying sardines on the propane heater and occasionally chucking some lard.
The baiting and feeding of polar bears is no longer legal in Manitoba, (I’m not sure if it ever actually was) and active baiting in the tourism industry really stopped in the mid-’90s. However, I find it just incredible that a polar bear population first habituated by a garbage dump in the 1960s and then habituated by food incentives from the 1970s-90s has actually had very few serious encounters with people. The last fatality was in 1983, with only one serious attack in 2004, primarily due to human negligence.
This is primarily a credit to polar bears. They are incredibly smart animals and most experts believe they learn things through only one repetition. So while they learned to feed at the garbage dump quickly, they also learned that the garbage dump was no longer a food source once it closed in 2004.
While everyone expected polar bear encounters to dramatically increase the following year as the bears started searching for a new food source, the bears actually seemed to take it in stride. Most stayed around the old dump for less than a week before continuing on with their usual meanderings.
The rest of the credit for this co-existence goes to the Polar Bear Alert program, which began in the mid-’60s when the military base closed near Churchill, and polar bears began re-asserting their arctic sovereignty. There were several dangerous encounters during the first years, so the province developed a polar bear control program along with a community bear hotline.
Do to budgetary constraints, it was deemed necessary to shoot problem bears by the 1971 season. At this time, the International Fund of Animal Welfare stepped in and raised money to transport polar bears out of the community by helicopter.
They also promoted a less successful alternative to the garbage dump, an incinerator. At first it worked well, but soon the bears learned that smoke meant food, and actually ended up camping out near and/or in the incinerator.
The Polar Bear Alert program has now been relocating bears and patrolling Churchill for over 40 years. While the program (like any) could use some tweaks and updates, it generally works quite well and in fact, is as much an international tourist attraction as the bears themselves.
To me, this is something the Yukon could learn from, watching this summer’s news of bear encounters, and our subsequent “solutions,” was disheartening to say the least. Maybe it is time to think outside the box in the Southern Lakes region—whether it be increasing the budget for non-fatal solutions or possibly even baiting non-inhabited areas, a method used in other jurisdictions.
It’s hard to say what would work, or if the will is there. It depends on how we value the Southern Lakes grizzlies.
Enough preaching. Since the closure of Churchill’s garbage dump (during which time we opened a recycling centre, and then decided to re-open another garbage dump in a new spot), the bears have not been idle.
First, they had a minor war with Edgar, the town garbage dump guy, in which they continued to break into the recycling centre and he continued to fortify it. Once that phase had generally passed, some returned to the old dump, possibly to wax nostalgic.
To the bears’ delight, the Port of Churchill continued dumping its grain tailings at the old dumpsite, which, it turns out, are quite tasty to polar bears. To their further delight, once a pile of grain sits for a couple years the core begins to ferment. It turns out polar bears like fermented grain even more than regular grain—even if they pay for it the next morning.
Kelsey Eliasson is a polar bear guide, artist and essentially unemployable in the real world, which is why he spends most of his time in the north. He also writes a blog about bears at www.polarbearalley.com.