Are Polar Bears Endangered By Humans…Or Vice versa?

Churchill, Manitoba …the “polar bear capital of the world” is becoming a town with a bear problem. Or..are seasonal polar bears having issues with increasing numbers of tourists venturing to the town to view them in their natural habitat? The iconic tourist destination has always had issues with polar bear safety, however, the last decade or so has seen an escalation of what Manitoba Conservation titles “polar bear occurrences”. These “occurrences are bear encounters that pose a threat to humans.  Although no person has been fatally harmed within the last couple of decades in the town of Churchill, more and more close calls are being reported each year.


Traveler numbers to Churchill have increased each year over the past decade placing strain on Manitoba Conservation officers patrolling the area. Although larger, experienced tour companies educate their guests on safety regulations, many tourists arrive in town independently with little or no information related to bear safety. Photographers especially are more prone to take extra risks as they attempt to capture images of polar bears, other wildlife and the Arctic landscape. Walking along Precambrian rocks near the beach or wandering just outside town limits is similar to playing Russian roulette…bears can appear from behind a rock or out of a tree stand drifted with snow. I personally have seen numerous naive individuals walking alone, unarmed outside town. After informing some of these people of the risks and danger of walking in those areas, they all seemed either surprised or unconcerned regarding their situation. Although no laws are being broken, other than those of the common sense variety, information needs to be more readily available to unsuspecting travelers. Signs, literature and website information could go a long way in deterring people from straying too far from the safety of town.

Bear danger area for humans.

Polar bear danger area. -Steve Selden photo.

Churchill itself can be a risk when darkness falls and especially when storms blow in across the Hudson Bay. Polar bears, wander into town lured by smells and habit from years of curiosity. Shelter between buildings and under structures make the town a nice respite for these hungry animals awaiting the annual freeze-up of the bay. This is where the question of endangerment comes in. Are bears endangering the local humans or are the humans endangering the polar bears. Because the topography of the coastline allows for the annual migration of bears to this site, we must concede that polar bears would congregate here regardless of human population. However, more bears might gather here as a result of human activity and all the food scents and products that come with it. Both animals have found a middle ground of sorts forged by toleration. Bears are trapped more often than killed these days as the local economy is now driven from their presence. Churchillians have developed an information network for Conservation officers to respond quickly to bear sightings in and around town. Polar bear alert ( 675-bear) network has facilitated rapid response to bears in town and approaching bruins that may be a risk to human safety. This system has work very well over the last decade.

Polar bear image.

Steve Selden photo.

One variable that has crept into the polar bear-human relationship in Churchill is the global warming issue. While scientific evidence still points to a warming trend in the Arctic that could impact the animals more severely in the future, the main concern at present time is the length of the seal hunting season on the bay ice. With a somewhat later freeze-up in November and an earlier break-up in the Spring, bears are forced on land and into Churchill for longer periods of time. These extended stays are creating friction between bears and humans creating a new dynamic that needs to be considered. Being more aware as a traveler to the region is a start. Respecting the “wildness” of the polar bear population in all circumstances is paramount.


Polar Bear Season Ends With Blizzard

The annual doubts focusing on the Hudson Bay freeze-up were put to rest last week as Winter blew in across the icy Hudson Bay. Plummeting temperatures along with blizzard conditions allowed for the bay to freeze over quickly. All the banter over weather or not this would be another late freeze – up was allayed, by weeks- end as polar bears were journeying out across the frozen surface. Current temperatures well below freezing bode well for a solid freeze -up and bountiful seal hunting for the bears.

polar bear image

Karen Walker photo.

Guide Brad Joseph’s group arrived in Churchill just before the brunt of the Winter storm was settling in. After lunch, in town, the group hurried out to the polar bear compound with a couple of other groups to witness a bear lift. A great way to start a trip up North. On the way back to town, along the coast road, some local Churchillians slid off the road into a snowbank across from miss piggy, the old plane wreck, and Brad attempted to help push them back onto the road…all the while keeping a keen eye open for bears lurking nearby. The whole scene was exciting for the folks watching from the shuttle.

polar bear tracks image.

Karen Walker photo.

The following day the weather deteriorated into full-on blizzard conditions though right after leaving the launch site the group came upon a sow with two coys approaching the rover and lending themselves to excellent photo opportunities. Shortly thereafter, further down the coast road, five large males surrounded the rover. After some sparring in front of the thrilled travelers the bruins began digging snow -beds to take some respite from the blizzard. It actually was quite thrilling for everyone to watch a few of the bears get covered by the drifting and blowing snow. Most of the day was spent in the same area where all these bears were congregating…a great day for photo’s …capturing all the action happening around the land. The increasing windchill forced guests to move in and out of the vehicle to the back observation deck. Despite the cold, travelers were impressed by the power of the Arctic squeezing the land and testing the endurance of the animals bearing its’ burden. Arctic sea smoke steamed in from over the freezing bay pushed by gale force winds. The gusts also allowed for the quick formation of snow drifts. Watching the icy snow crystals blow across the surface was an excellent reference point for Brad to explain the Krumholz affect works on exposed spruce trees. Blizzard, bears and drifting snow..great Arctic weather.

polar bear image

Brad Josephs photo.

Guide’s Eric and Rinnie brought a photo group out to the tundra lodge and caught the tail end of a busy bear season with five to seven bears still in the vicinity. As the ice formed the bears gradually meandered out to the bay. Seeing and photographing the bears out on the ice is a rare occurrence only a few intrepid travelers capture on film. Just prior to the freeze-up, the wind was whipping over the open tundra and the bears were hunkered down. Almost instinctively the bears rose up and headed out. At last report from Churchill the South winds had since pushed the ice out aways and some bears had returned to land. Not long before they will be gone again.

Northern lights image.

Eric Rock photo.

The final two nights of the season for the photography group unveiled some of the best aurora displays of the entire season. Although Northern lights displays were few and far between this fall, these last couple of nights were absolutely phenomenal to say the least. And, being situated out at the lodge made for even more intense viewing and spectacular  images as well. Eric Rock submitted a photo to and it was published on November 23 on their site. Eric is a veteran at photographing and explaining auroral activity in the Arctic. What a way to finish off a uniquely fantastic polar bear season.



Pin It on Pinterest