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.
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.
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.