Happy Polar Bear Family

Sometimes hump day can be tough. Relax and take it easy like this polar bear family in Wapusk National Park just east of Churchill, Manitoba. This photo was taken by Daisy Gilardini in the polar bear denning area of Wapusk. Polar bears congregate in Churchill throughout late summer into the fall while waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze. The denning area of Wapusk National Park is home to mothers and cubs during the deep freeze of winter. Only a few brave souls venture into this region. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world and the best place to see these unique and majestic animals.

Polar bears in Wapusk National Park

Polar bear sow and cubs in Wapusk National Park. Daisy Gilardini photo.

Polar Bear Encounters on Rise in Churchill

An assessment of Manitoba government statistical documents point to increased polar bear encounters with people in Churchill, the self proclaimed polar bear capital on the shores of Hudson Bay. As a result of increased interaction between polar bears and humans the numbers of incarcerated bears has nearly doubled since 2013. That year 36 animals were captured and taken to the polar bear holding facility, or jail, compared with 65 this past year.

polar bear lift in Churchill

Polar bear lift in Churchill. Justin Gibson photo.

Over the past three years  the numbers of documented cases of polar bear encounters in Churchill has risen from 229 in 2013 to 351 last year. All aspects of the current numbers point to increased activity between bears and humans in Churchill.

Daryll Hedman is the regional wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation. His view on last year’s record for the number of polar bears caught in the populated “control zone” of Churchill indicates that even the authorities that deal with these animals on a regular basis are somewhat alarmed by the data. “Three hundred and fifty-one — for occurrences, that’s a high number,” he said.

Hedman and other experts are pointing to climate change as the culprit and resulting decreased sea ice as largely to blame. Over two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears live in Canada though experts are claiming that within only a few decades we could have a massive decline in numbers. With later freeze up in Arctic waters and thawing coming earlier in the spring, polar bears are competing for fatty seal meat within a tighter window. This impacts cubs trying to survive their first year the most. According to Andrew Derocher, a leading polar bear authority from University of Alberta, fewer cubs are making it through their first year out of the den. They simply are not getting the extended seal – hunting training on sea ice that they once were.

brad josephs polar bear seal kill

Polar bears spending more time on land are more likely to migrate to inhabited areas like Churchill in search of food. These encounters are happening more often and earlier in summer. Not that long ago polar bears rarely appeared in Churchill before August. Now early July seems to be the norm.

“What’s the tipping point?” Headman said. “What’s the threshold that they can go without food? When they’re on land, they’re not eating.”How long can they sustain themselves without getting onto that sea ice platform to hunt seals again?”

 

Snowy Owls and Lemmings

The snowy owl is the largest owl – by weight- and certainly the most photogenic with its’ regal white feathers and stunning yellow eyes. Birders and travelers from around the world venture north to the Arctic to catch a glimpse, and sometimes more in heavily populated years. Summers are spent deep in the Arctic to take advantage of the 24 hour sunlight that enhances chances to gather more prey such as lemmings and ptarmigan. In bountiful years when the lemming population is prolific, snowy owls can rear twice or three times the number of young. The two species are intertwined.

JBM1tX snowy owl

Snowy owl flying right into view of a traffic camera in Montreal, Quebec. transport Quebec photo.

Snowy owls are prevalent in Churchill during polar bear season in October and November. Last season, high numbers of sightings across the tundra drew the awe of people whom had ventured to the polar bear capital of the world mainly to see the bears. However, the magnificent owl always seems to create a lasting impression on the groups. Though the seasonal fluctuations are sometimes frustrating to travelers and in particular birders that journey to Churchill to see the species, there is a pretty basic explanation for the changes year to year. Why do we have these vastly different numbers in various seasons?

Lemmings in particular are a unique prey species for snowy owls. Lemmings prey upon tundra mosses and will remain in an area until their food supply has been exhausted. Unlike voles that eat grasses which replenish naturally fairly quickly, the mosses that lemmings eat take years to regrow. Therefore they move to another region and the predators such as snowy owls follow. The lemming population crashes after reaching a peak density and the owls emigrate to greener pastures or, at least those with healthy moss populations. There they will usually find lemming populations…and the cycle continues. The theories that lemming populations decrease due to predators such as foxes, owls and other raptors in a region is simply not true. The available vegetation is the key to the cycle.

snowy owl in Montreal, Quebec

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