A beluga whale in the murky Churchill River. Reinhard Mink photo.
Polar bear scouring the tundra. Reinhard Mink photo.
Aerial of view of Halfway Point and the Hudson Bay. Reinhard Mink photo.
Pod of male beluga whales in the Hudson Bay. Reinhard Mink photo.
View of Churchill with Fort Prince of Wales in the foreground. Reinhard Mink photo.
Beluga seemingly hovering in the Churchill River. Reinhard Mink photo.
Summer is winding down in the north and the action has been relentless with the usual incredible Churchill summer highlights. The polar bears have been wandering the rocky Precambrian coast of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River and belugas have posed for shots like these above for the entire summer. We can’t get enough of the awesome scenic vistas near the coast and inland along rocky tundra. Another summer in the north with the wildlife one only dreams of! These images from Reinhard Mink are just a sample of the wildlife wonders of Churchill!
Polar bear mother and cub taking a breather lying on the Precambrian shield in Churchill Katie de Meulles photo.
All signs point to a decline in polar bear numbers in the southeastern region of the Hudson Bay, namely Churchill. Without even looking at the most recent statistics, there have been telltale changes in bear behavior that signal a potential shift in the polar bear population in the region.
A recent in-depth survey of polar bears in the world’s most southerly range indicates numbers have dropped and climate change is possibly rearing its head on the most accessible region to see these majestic creatures, Churchill!
Lead researcher and primary author of scientific paper Martyn Obbard focused on the polar bears residing on the shores of the James Bay and Hudson Bay known as the southern Hudson Bay population. Obbard collaborated with scientists from governments of Nunavut, Quebec and Ontario as well as the United States.
“If this trend is real and if it continues, I think we happened to have caught it just as it started to go over a cliff,” said Martyn Obbard, lead author of the paper that appeared this week in the journal Arctic Science.
A 17per cent decrease in five years, from 943 to 780 in that region has the scientific community on high alert. However, the more alarming number is a decrease from 12 percent to 5 percent of yearlings from 2011 to 2018.
“Many adult females may still be producing litters, but they may be less successful in raising cubs,” says the paper.
Studies over the last few years have reported what we have been seeing on average. Polar bears are getting skinnier and smaller from an annual reduction in the number of days of accessible sea ice
Between 1980 and 2012, research shows the number of days spent on land rather than on sea ice increased by 30 days. This time period severely reduces the amount of seal fat intake and leads to lower survival rates particularly for yearlings and less experienced hunters.
While the last survey of Hudson Bay polar bears conducted in 2011 showed population numbers fairly stable and in line with the previous 25 years of observations, Obbard wanted to quell the debate on both sides regarding the population. The latest ariel survey was conducted with rigor and quite comparable to the 2011 survey.
Obbard, recently retired from the Ontario government, cautions that having only two data points is not a conclusive study, the drop off observed is troubling at least.
“We’ve tried to be not alarmist. But we’ve tried to point out there are serious concerns,” stated Obbard.
While the years have produced images of polar bears seemingly adapting better to more ice-free days through finding alternative food sources or hunting seals on land or in the coastal shallows, Obbard’s most recent study validates impending warnings from researchers who have maintained that polar bear numbers would shrink like the ice when seal hunting days were reduced.
Polar bears have seemed to adapt in recent years to less “ice time” by hunting closer to shore. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
“If we have a decline in body condition, what comes next? Declines in survival then decline in reproductive success,” he said. “And what are the consequences of those? The individual-level effects become population-level effects — declines in survival rates and now declines in abundance.”
Past warnings have been similar to what Obbard sees now. Everything points to climate change as the main end cause of polar bear body deterioration. The pure fact that sea ice has been reduced year over year cannot be ignored.
“It is disheartening,” Obbard states.
Another intensive survey should be scheduled for 2021 to further find an accurate baseline for the western and southern Hudson Bay populations according to Obbard.
The Port of Churchill has been a symbol of uncertainty in Churchill. Katie de Meulles photo.
A Manitoba First Nations group has formed a partnership with an independent company to establish the reopening of the rail line to Churchill and potential operation of the grain port in Churchill.
Heard that before? Well, this time we might be in for the real thing.
A recent press release confirms that a consortium of Manitoba First Nations, led by Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson, will partner with iChurchill Inc., a private Canadian company, entering into an acquisition agreement with Denver-based Omnitrax, to take over control of the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Railway.
“The port has got all of the grain handling equipment and simply said, the first thing we want to do is resume that commercial activity,” said Louis Dufresne, president of iChurchill Inc., in a phone interview Friday.
Northern residents of the town of Churchill along with Indigenous leaders say the railway and port are crucial to the existence of towns and all First Nations in northern Manitoba.
Last May, a year ago, the Hudson Bay rail line owned by Denver-based Omnitrax sustained flood damage from the spring melt of two late-season blizzards. The damage was estimated at nearly $60 million and Omnitrax balked at its contract to repair the damage and therefore reopen the train line to Churchill. Soon after, a native group under the name Missinippi Rail LP, a consortium of about 15 Manitoba First Nations, signed an informal agreement to purchase the port and rail line for $20 million. Further strengthening their offer and position, the group enhanced their buying power by joining with One North, a group representing First Nations and communities served by the Hudson Bay line.
Photo by Major MacLachlan (www.zambonista.com/hbr/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
With that deal seemingly dormant and not gaining any momentum, this new one is being praised by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
“Hopeful always when I hear these announcements, but of course like the people of Churchill, I just really would like to see the rail line rebuilt and the port reopened with solid commitments with whoever is going to take charge of the ownership that they are committed for the longer term.”
Now, iChurchill Inc. is hoping to formalize and seal the agreement by mid-June in order to commence repairs and reopen the line in time for the fall polar bear season. These details have not been confirmed by Omnitrax as of yet,
Communities have been suffering for a year now with increased costs of transporting goods to the outlying towns in the north. The isolation has touched everyone’s lives in every community. With another end of this dilemma in sight, people have been given hope once again.
iChurchill Inc. is expected to release more information today regarding plans for repairing the rail line and potential reopening of the port at a Winnipeg press conference.
Any new agreement would need approval from the federal government. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr is expected to release a statement Friday.
Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs and his group of avid and hearty travelers in Churchill for northern lights had time to learn the art of igloo building in frigid minus 50 C Arctic temperatures. Despite the piercing cold, everyone enjoyed the experience and immersed themselves in an authentic Arctic situation and survivalist technique utilized by hunters and travelers out on the tundra and ice of the far north. This system has saved lives every year in the extreme weather of the Arctic. Hopefully, we will bring you some tantalizing northern lights from this adventure in the next couple of days. Churchill’s aurora borealis season is heating up even during this incredibly cold stretch!
This exceptional post my Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs is a story of perseverance and making the best of a situation out of one’s control. An experience can take on a life of its own if the effort is put in!
The first amazing experience happened a few hours after our arrival to Churchill. Fellow guide Theresa Whipple spotted a polar bear alert truck towing a trailer with a sedated giant male bear on the back heading east from the polar bear jail. She called me on the radio and we headed out there. Brad Josephs photo.
This last polar bear season proved to be quite challenging after the first week of November due to record-setting early cold weather which caused the sea-ice to form earlier than it has in decades. This was such a different situation from last year when the ice formed unusually late. This, of course, is great news for the polar bears, which need ice as a platform to hunt seals, but when the bears move offshore we cannot find them on our bear viewing trips. I and two other guides were scheduled with the last trips of the season, extending until the 26th of November. These new “family trips” would have been spectacular last year, but this year most of the bears had moved to more than 60 miles offshore, which is too far for us to even find with helicopters! We maintained a positive attitude and tried our best to teach the young kids in our groups as much as possible about Arctic ecology, and have as much fun as possible. Luckily these trips turned out to be fantastic, and we were privy to some outstanding and rarely seen bear action.
Since the early 1980s, the province of Manitoba has employed a force of bear patrol officers who haze polar bears away from town and incarcerate problem bears in the Polar Bear Holding Facility, aka the Polar Bear Jail. When the ice has formed on Hudson Bay, the officers release the bears on the beach outside of town. When the bears see the ice, they lose any interest in prowling around town and head offshore to hunt seals. In my 13 seasons guiding in Churchill, I have never witnessed these releases, though it has always been a dream of mine to see it.
We found several Polar Bear Alert Conservation Officers unloading two huge bears on the beach at the edge of the frozen sea. Brad Josephs photo.
The 1,000+ pound polar bear, immobilized with Telazol, was carefully rolled onto the beach. In 45 minutes he woke up and headed onto the ice. The green dot on his back lasts for around a week and shows anyone from a distance that the bear has recently been released. It also shows possible substance hunters from villages to the north that the bear has toxic drugs in his system from being immobilized, and shouldn’t be consumed. Brad Josephs photo.
The highlight of the entire trip for most of the group happened like magic. One of the officers came to our group in his truck and asked how many little kids we had. He knew with the bears having disappeared from town that we were going to have a rough time meeting the expectations of the kids. I couldn’t believe it when he told us to load the little ones in his truck so he could drive them up to the waking giant bear for a close look! What an amazing experience that these young guys would never forget. Brett, if you are out there, you are a hero in my book forever!
The bear is awake and moving around groggily after 45 minutes. He’s a FREE BEAR and theres ice to hunt on! Brad Josephs photo.
The next morning we all boarded helicopters to hopefully see bears on the ice. Since the ice edge was an estimated 60 miles offshore, we knew that we may not find any, as we cannot travel that far by helicopter. We were so happy to see many bears! To fly over that vast expanse of rugged ice and finally reach the bears who were hunting seals was for me, a lifetime wildlife viewing highlight. We even saw one of the bears that had been released the previous evening, already more than 10 miles offshore! The climax was seeing a bear eating a seal. WOW doesn’t describe it!
The green dot shows us this bear was released the evening before! The next morning we see him waiting next to a patch of open water, watching for seals! Brad Josephs photo.
We found this young bear who had very recently caught a seal from a breathing hole, dragged it to more solid ice, and was happily devouring the blubber. Brad Josephs photo.
I was thrilled to see ravens with the bears. These tough birds, as well as arctic foxes, travel hundreds of miles onto the pack ice to scavenge seal kills. I wonder if the ravens help the bears find breathing holes—I bet they do. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and cub searching for seals on the ice. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and two 2-year-old cubs. Brad Josephs photo.
When our helicopter trip was finished the pilot said the conservation officers needed helicopter assistance with a problem bear in town. We loaded the bus and sat at a high point in town and waited for the action, and found it though it was a little too close for comfort, but very exciting for the kids.
Polar bear alert chases a cub out of town. The bear raced down the road towards us. We had to move the bus to get out of the way. Some of my folks said it was like being in the middle of a James Bond movie, as the helicopter hovered over us, and the bear was darted by an officer hanging from an open window. Brad Josephs photo.
Officers immobilized the orphaned 1-year-old cub from the helicopter with a dart. The cub’s chance of survival in the wild is south of zero at that age, so he will be transferred to the polar bear exhibit at the Winnipeg Zoo most likely. Brad Josephs photo.
Jack Batskill is a legendary Polar Bear Alert officer. Through his many years of dealing with polar bears, he is revered as a leading expert in his field, and respected by all in the bear world. Brad Josephs photo.
Dog sledding in the boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.
I found a snowshoe hare in the boreal forest for the kids to see. Brad Josephs photo.
On the last day we explored the tundra in a Polar Rover. We didn’t see any bears, but after the action of the previous days it was OK. The kids understood, and we had a blast looking for foxes and other wildlife. This is a red fox. Brad Josephs photo.
12-year-old Eleanor Fraser won my “animal spotter award” for seeing this nearly invisible arctic hare in a willow patch. Way to go, Eleanor! Brad Josephs photo.
What an awesome trip! I am so glad it was so thrilling for the kids, as getting the young generation interested in our natural world is the only way to ensure conservation in the future.
Check out Natural Habitat’s new family trips if you want to take your kids on an educational adventure that is parent and kid friendly. Let us plant seeds of appreciation for the natural world in the young ones and encourage a new generation of conservationists!