Churchill Photo of the Week – Ice Bears

polar bears sparring

Polar bears sparring on the pack ice. Paul Nicklen/National Geographic photo.

This photo by Paul Nicklen for National Geographic gives us a rare look into life out on the pack ice for polar bears. Sparring polar bears is a common behavior in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area although it’s rare to see these majestic animals going at it out on the ice of the Hudson Bay. The western Hudson Bay polar bear population is enjoying the seal – hunting season finally and we will see them in the spring. Enjoy!

Manitoba Province Urging Beluga Protection

Belugas down under AVDM
Nearly a quarter, 57,000, of the worlds beluga population estimated at 200,000 migrate to the Western Hudson Bay estuaries of the Seal, Nelson and Churchill Rivers. The province of Manitoba is hoping the liberal government keeps promises made during the 2015 election to protect five per cent of Canada’s more than 200,000 kilometer coastline by 2017 and include this region. Manitoba government is pushing hard for protection of these estuaries as part of their new Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan.If the plan goes through and is implemented it would protect moulting, feeding and calving areas for the nearly 60,000 belugas along the Hudson Bay coast in the Churchill region. This area comprises the largest sub – population in the world …a quite healthy population indeed. Nearly half the other populations, including the St. Lawrence River group in eastern Canada, are not doing as well. Increased development has deployed carcinogens through harmful chemicals into these waters.The proposal from Manitoba province will also include requests to amend federal legislation regulating pollution in Arctic waters south of the 60 degrees lattitiude so to cover the fragile ecosysystems in the estuaries frequented by the belugas. Although the current status of these creatures is healthy, rapid change in the Arctic could affect the species adversely in the near future.
beluga-map-hudson-bayDevelopment along the rivers directly related to reduced ice formation in the Arctic was listed as potential threat to the belugas of Manitoba. The difference between these river sanctuaries and the St. Lawrence where massive development has caused negative effects and subsequent “threatened” classification of that beluga whale population is vast. However a future change in commerce due to global warming could change things for Hudson Bay belugas in a hurry.A direct consequence of arctic ice melt would be increased shipping leading to extensive noise pollution that would harm the belugas ability to echo-locate and communicate with one another. Warming trends also have implications on the beluga’s winter feeding grounds in the Hudson Strait in the northeast. The ice harbors algae that sustain fish that belugas prey upon as well serving as a safe haven for the belugas hiding from killer whales. These predators are quite common in the bay in recent years due to more access from longer ice free periods.A key consideration in Churchill, and more specifically the Churchill River, is the long term strategy of the Port of Churchill, currently in the process of changing ownership. The relationship and interactions between the port and the belugas to date have been very good. With new owners and possible new directions in shipping from the facility it is important to cover all the angles with regards to water contamination and shipping routes and frequency.

With belugas coming to Churchill each summer there has been an increase in tourism as a result. The economic benefits from this would be adversely affected if protection was not placed on the estuary.

Beluga whales in the Churchill River under the watchful eyes of Natural Habitat travelers.

Beluga whale watching near the port of Churchill. Natural Habitat photo

Because of these current and impending threats, advocates and researchers are intent on protecting the clean estuaries now before the need becomes dire. Once development ensues to a higher degree as a result of environmental change it could be too late Thinking ahead and protecting these areas now is crucial!

Are Wolves Preying on Polar Bears in Manitoba?

polar bear sow and cub Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear sow and cub wearily survey their surroundings constantly aware of predators. Justin Gibson photo.

A Manitoba Conservation official has found evidence that wolves near Hudson Bay have learned to hunt polar bear cubs.

Polar bears are generally considered the top of the Arctic food chain, but recently a pack of wolves apparently distracted a mother bear long enough to take her cub in the Kaskatamagan Wildlife Management Area in northeastern Manitoba, said Daryll Hedman, the wildlife manager for the province’s northeast region.

“This is the first strong indirect evidence I’ve ever seen of wolves preying on a polar bear cub. They probably killed the cub and dragged it away.” reported Hedman.

For four years now Hedman has been conducting polar bear maternity den emergence surveys in the region by helicopter. These wolf and polar bear encounters have been somewhat lore and something he has not witnessed firsthand. This past March Hedman saw evidence of such an attack for the first time. Now the unreal became real. “This doesn’t happen often. It still seems to be a very rare event.” stated Hedman.

Arctic wolves Canada

Arctic wolfpack searching for a meal on the ice. photo.

“We’ve had reports of wolves predating on polar bears [the cubs] in the past by lodges and First Nations, mostly when the polar bears are coming off the ice onto land at the end of July,” said Hedman.

“In our most recent report, a First Nations trapper reported to me what looked like a polar bear-wolf encounter” in the wildlife management area east of York Factory on the Hayes River, which runs along the Hudson Bay shoreline to the Ontario border.

“He said a single adult polar bear track was leaving the den site. About five days later, we were doing our survey by helicopter. We landed [at that site] and there was definitely evidence of polar bear and wolf tracks.”

Gray wolf pack

Wolf pack working together. Digital Vision photo.

Members of a wolf pack get a mother’s attention, then the rest of the pack grabs her cub, Daryll Hedman says. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

This most recent attack that Hedman saw evidence of was pretty conclusive and pointed towards a sure attack of a polar bear by wolves.

“There was also a single cub track leading up to the wolf encounter, and after that, only the single track of a female polar bear going out to the ice of western Hudson Bay,” stated Hedman. “The polar bear cub was probably four or five months old”. he added.

“It happened right on the tidal flats of Hudson Bay,” he said, noting the area contains a pretty healthy population of moose, the main prey species for wolves along the Hudson Bay coast in Kaskatamagan.

“I’ve had reports from people who have actually seen this sort of thing before,” he said.

“What usually happens is the sow polar bear can’t react quickly enough when the wolves are in a pack. Some of the wolves are getting her attention and the others go for the cub.”

Scientists and researchers studying these animals have also documented wolves hunting polar bear cubs.

“In 1983, the late Malcolm Ramsay and I found evidence of a pack of wolves in the Churchill denning area that had learned to kill polar bear cubs when they were on their way to the sea ice from their maternity dens,” polar bear specialist Ian Stirling wrote in his book Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species.

“Where the polar bears den, there are no wolves, but once they leave the dens and get closer to the coast, they might encounter wolves.”

(Excerpts and quotes supplied by Martin Zelig for CBC News)

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