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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. With 800 or so year – round residents and up to 3,000 in the high polar bear season, the town changes complexion quite a bit during the year. One thing that doesn’t change however is the need for fire fighting equipment in this wild and often harsh environment.
Since fires seem to often occur at most inopportune times, the need for the most up – to – date equipment is of the utmost necessity. Fires in the winter, which is longer in Churchill than many other towns, seems to be the most catastrophic. With frigid temperatures and fierce high winds, fires can rage out of control and destroy wood framed buildings at an incredible pace. In the last decade alone Churchill has lost some valuable and iconic structures. Just this past year Metis Heritage Hall was lost from fire. The 22 volunteers which comprise the total fire fighting force in Churchill need all the help they can get!
What they are in most critical need of at this time in history is a new water pumper truck. With nearly a 50 year – old 1969 GMC pumper, older than 21 of the 22 department volunteers, repairing the truck at this point is not an option. Costs of labor for many of the repairs alone would outweigh the benefit of trying to squeeze a few more years of service from the relic.
With new pumpers costing an estimated $400,000 – $1,000,000, the town has resorted to locating a very reliable used vehicle for $100,000. Upgrading to a “newer” truck will provide tremendous support for the volunteers. Immediate and reliable response is what matters and this newer truck will help provide such.
With the goal of raising $50,000 toward the purchase the town has set up a gound me page to assist in reaching the plateau within the year. If you have been to Churchill or have a place in your heart for this incredibly unique place on our small planet please go and fund a truly worthy cause. Every little bit helps and we thank you in advance from Churchill Fire Department!
Wildlife photographer, Kyriakos Kaziras aboard an adventure cruise near Spitsbergen,Norway received some thrills when a polar bear approached and then attempted to board his ship cruising through the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. His passion for capturing images of wildlife became slightly risky when this particular bear reached in through the grated port hole and swiped his paw at Kaziras. Quite the thrill. In my extensive time in Churchill I have experienced similar situations while attempting to photograph the wiley polar bears of the polar bear capital.It is thrilling and terrifying in the same moment!
It’s somewhat routine for polar bears to approach passenger ships in the area when they spot the large vessels from afar. They venture toward them to investigate and even smells from the ships may also draw the bears nearer. Most polar bears stay a safe distance from the slow moving ships however this one had no hesitancy at getting as close as possible.
For more than two hours this bruin attempted to find a way to get aboard the boat. At one point he climbed atop a large pressure ridge in the ice and was level with the open deck of the vessel. “Eventually the bear managed to climb on a small iceberg, and ended up next to us, at the same height. At that moment he could have easily jumped into the boat. It took all the experience of our captain and an emergency maneuver to get us out of this mess and away from the bear.” If the bear had found a way to board the ship the exciting adventure might have ended tragically for passengers or the bear!