Sign Up for our Newsletter!
1-866-UGO-WILD (846-9453)

Posts Tagged ‘Churchill Manitoba’

Churchill Polar Bear Alert Program protects both bears and humans

by Bob Windsor, Manitoba Conservation

Polar bears that get too close are often housed before being relocated. Photo courtesy of Bob Wendt.

Polar bears that get too close are often housed before being relocated. Photo courtesy of Bob Wendt.

This story originally appeared in Fur Harvester Magazine and is reprinted here courtesy of author Bob Windsor.

Churchill Manitoba is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and rightfully so.  Manitoba is home to some of the approximately 1,000 polar bears of the Western Hudson Bay sub-population, and people from all corners of the world flock to Churchill for an opportunity to see the great white bears.

Churchill is built on the bear’s natural migration path, and as a result, it’s not uncommon to see polar bears in the community or skirting along the nearby Hudson Bay Coast. The people of Churchill have learned to co-exist with the bears and have had success in doing it to a degree not found anywhere else in the world.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1960s, the number of bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze around Churchill in the fall was as high as 80, and up to 40 bears at a time could be seen in the local waste disposal grounds.

At that time, polar bears posing a threat to human safety or personal property were generally shot. In 1963, 1966 and 1967 there were serious human-bear confrontations in and around the community, and in 1968 there was a fatal attack on a small boy. This led to calls for a program to better manage polar bears in this area.

Three tranquilized polar bears being relocated via helicopter, 70 km north of Churchill.

Three tranquilized polar bears being relocated via helicopter, 70 km north of Churchill.

In 1969, the Polar Bear Control Program was created. The program had three main objectives: to protect human life, to protect personal property from damage by polar bears and to ensure polar bears were not unduly harassed or killed.

During the 1970s there continued to be human-bear encounters, although none were fatal.  Persistent and aggressive bears had to be euthanized for the protection of the people, as there was no other way to handle bears that consistently returned to town. An average of 15 polar bears were destroyed each year in the area.

In 1976, 24 problem polar bears were relocated by DC3 airplane from Churchill to the Kaskattama River area, close to the Manitoba-Ontario border on Hudson Bay. This endeavor was very expensive, and some of the bears returned quickly and had to be destroyed.

It was decided that a holding facility for polar bears would moderate the need to euthanize bears. In 1979, construction started on the facility, which was designed to hold 16 single bears and four family groups. The holding pens are built of concrete bricks with steel bar doors and ceilings.

While the facility was under construction, the Polar Bear Alert Program was established in 1980. The priorities of this program include:

  • protecting human life from polar bears
  • protecting polar bears from harassment or the need to be euthanized
  • minimizing damage to property from polar bears
  • minimizing the potential of food conditioning and/or human habituation of polar bears
  • ensuring the safety of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship staff working with the Polar Bear Alert Program

The Churchill area was divided into three control zones: the living/working area in the community (Zone 1), the inhabited perimeter area (Zone 2) and the remote area (Zone 3).  The level of tolerance for the presence of polar bears is lowest in Zone 1, where all bears are immediately removed.

In 1982, the Polar Bear Holding Facility was put into use and it has held over 2,000 bears to date. Most bears captured are housed at the Polar Bear Holding Facility. The facility was upgraded in 2006 and currently has 28 holding pens, five of which have air conditioning for warm weather use. The amount of time each bear spends in the facility varies, and depends on the amount of space available and the location and frequency of capture.

Bears captured in Zone 1 are held for a minimum of 30 days, with the exception of family groups that are relocated as soon as possible. This 30-day rule was to lessen the chance of a polar bear returning to Zone 1, and also prevents the bears from having the opportunity to become conditioned to human food sources.

The bears are provided with water or snow, but are not fed, as polar bears do not normally feed until they are able to hunt for seals on the frozen Hudson Bay, and survive on the fat stores from the previous season. Also, feeding the bears could condition them to associate man with food, which could lead to the bears returning to Churchill in future.

Today’s Polar Bear Alert Program is staffed with two natural resource officers and three resource management technicians with additional staff during the peak season. The program involves public education, minimizing bear attractants and removing bears from a defined area in and around the community.

Staff monitors a 24-hour emergency bear line. Anyone seeing a bear in or near the community can call (204) 675-BEAR and staff will respond. It is not uncommon during the peak period from mid-October to mid-November for staff to be called out five or six times a night. As the weather gets colder and the ice is closer to forming, the bear activity escalates. Just before freeze-up, staff has chased more than a dozen bears along the edge of town in one day.

The removal of bears from the community or an area where they pose a danger is accomplished by hazing. This involves shooting scare cartridges from shotguns or pistols that cause loud bangs or screams, and following the bears with vehicles.

Bears that do not respond to noise stimulus are sometimes shot with rubber bullets (which don’t harm the bear) or a paint ball gun to encourage them on their way. Particularly stubborn bears are sometimes pushed away by helicopter. If a bear continues to return and will not enter a live trap, it will be immobilized with the use of a tranquilizer gun. This is done by either shooting from the ground, or darting the bear from a helicopter.

Polar Bear Culvert Trap

Polar Bear Culvert Trap

To prevent bears from entering the community, staff will establish a “trap line” around the perimeter of the community to intercept the bears. Bears are captured by use of culvert traps, which are large culverts with metal screens on one end and doors on the other.

The traps are baited with seal meat and fat, which is attached to a trigger in the front of the trap. When the bear enters the trap and pulls on the bait, the door is released and locks. The trap is permanently mounted onto a trailer, which allows the bears to be transported to the Polar Bear Holding Facility.

In 2011, staff responded to 341 polar bear occurrences and handled 61 bears. The most common age class of bears handled is sub-adults (between two- and five-years old).

Each bear is weighed when entering and exiting the Polar Bear Holding Facility, and is measured for length and girth and checked for overall health before it is released.

If not previously handled, each bear will receive ear tags and lip tattoos. The lip tattoo is a number matching their ear tags, and becomes the bear’s permanent “name”. Information such as the date and location of capture, as well as the bear’s health information, is recorded on a data sheet, which is later entered into a data base.

Each year the data base is updated and every bear that has ever been captured will be on record. Many of the bears handled have been tagged previously, some of which have been handled numerous times.

Before freeze-up, bears that are released from the holding facility are tranquilized and then transported by helicopter in a sling approximately 70 kilometers north of Churchill.  They are then released along the coast of the Hudson Bay. Most of the bears will continue moving northward looking for the first ice to form.

At the time of release the bears are marked with a green cattle marker spot on the top of their shoulder. This spot allows for easy recognition of released bears during that season, but wears off within a month or two. Very few bears return to Churchill during the same season. Those that do return and are able to be recaptured are held until the end of the season.

Polar bear jail in Churchill. Polar bear holding facility.

The polar bear holding facility in Churchill houses both single bears and family groups until they are ready for relocation.

After ice forms on the Hudson Bay, the remaining bears in the facility are released directly onto the ice of Hudson Bay by vehicle. The bears are loaded into culvert traps and hauled to the coastline and released. When the bears see the ice they are more than happy to get out on it, and to start hunting for seals.

The Polar Bear Alert Program is unique, and receives a large number of media and group presentation requests each year. Requests are accommodated as time permits, with the priority given to those that promote public education.

The most publicized and dramatized night of the entire bear season is Halloween. The safety of children trick or treating is a very real priority, and warrants special preparations. A helicopter patrol is done before dark and any bears found near town are hazed away. At least 12 two-person units are established from various agencies including Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, R.C.M.P., Parks Canada, Canadian Rangers, the fire department, emergency medical services and Manitoba Hydro.

Some units take up strategic vantage positions while others form mobile patrols. Several media film crews and numerous photographers roam around the community to record the event. Experience has proven the best way to avoid any “tricks” is to carry a good supply of “treats” to share from your patrol vehicle.

The staff who administer the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill are fortunate to experience the privilege of working with these magnificent predators. Nowhere else in Manitoba offers the unique experiences that the staff in Churchill come to enjoy.

The Polar Bear Alert Program is recognized globally for its achievements in protecting human life and preserving the lives of polar bears. The number of bears euthanized in protection of life or property is, on average, less than one per year. Thanks must be given to the people of Churchill, whose cooperation makes this unique program such a success.

Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge receives glowing reviews

“Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure is one of the most diverse and holistic fall wildlife viewing packages offered anywhere in the world. It combines four days at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge, where many of the Arctic’s most famous residents are seen and photographed on foot or from the Lodge, with one day in Churchill on a buggy tour. And this year, with Solar Max, we’re expecting even more spectacular northern lights viewing!

Your adventure takes place in prime polar bear viewing season in October and November at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge. The Lodge is strategically located approximately 30 kilometers by air from Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, where approximately 1,200 polar bears congregate and socialize while waiting for freeze-up and their annual seal hunt.

GreatIceBearDeb540

Debbie Blunderfield is all smiles as Scarbrow snacks on tundra fare in the background.

Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge is in the heart of the natural habitat of polar bears, caribou, Arctic and red fox, Arctic hare, wolves and moose along with numerous bird species such as snowy owls, ptarmigan and gyrfalcons. And last year last year, Kim Spragg, one of our guests at Dymond Lake Lodge was lucky enough to capture some rare video of a wolverine. Thanks Kim!

So how does a typical day start on the Great Ice Bear Adventure? Well, breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m. and the first walking tour generally leaves at 9:30 a.m. unless there’s a polar bear in camp! In that case the walking tour has to wait, but no one ever seems to mind meeting a polar bear up close. And taking pictures!

“We were treated to the daily antics of “Scarbrow“, a young male polar bear, who frequented our camp and followed us along the hiking trails. Our accomplished guides were full of information and always made the group’s safety the first priority. We were also treated to what the locals referred to as the best northern lights display of the season. In short, it was a spectacular trip and we would go again in a heartbeat!” ~ Mary Giesler

Scarbrow comes in close for a better look.

Scarbrow comes in for a closer look.

If no polar bears are in camp, you’ll bundle up and head out into the snow. The walks are comfortably paced, as they are geared towards plenty of viewing and photo opportunities and are guided by our professional and knowledgeable polar bear guides, so you’ll do a lot of learning along the way as well. Obviously we cannot allow the bears to approach too closely, and your guides are expert in keeping bears at a safe distance without sacrificing exciting viewing.

 “The guides took good care of us out “in the field” when the bear sometimes got almost too close. It was a really breathtaking experience to step off the small aircraft in one moment and to be about 10 meters away from a big polar bear in the next. The team at the lodge was superb and the food was lovely. The Tundra Buggy Tour completed our stay. We saw a lot of bears on that day.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

Polar bears do saunter by the Lodge on a regular basis, so you can often view them from the warmth and comfort of one of our lounges through the massive picture windows. This opportunity is all too welcome when a squall blows in! We have a variety of other activities to take part in as well, should the weather prevent us from exploring the outdoors, though this is rarely the case.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Lunches are served at the Lodge and we are generally back at the Lodge by 4:00 p.m. for hot or cold drinks and appetizers. Full course delectable dinners are served at 7:00 p.m. after which, the fireplace is almost always central. Your guide team will give informative lectures and beautiful slide presentations, as well as initiate a discussion about the activities for the following day.

“It was amazing! I had really high expectations and the experience lived up to them. All of the staff were very friendly and the logistics were well coordinated – everything went very smoothly. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and really added to our experience. I’m so glad I opted for Churchill Wild rather than the typical polar buggy tour. Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Churchill Wild guests photograph polar bear on Great Ice Bear Adventure

Polar bear poses for us at Dymond Lake.

Bedtime is at your leisure. The entire Lodge area is patrolled for polar bears all night by one of our night watchmen, so be prepared to have your sleep cut short by a nocturnal visit from one of the Great Ice Bears or a dazzling display of northern lights! You’ll definitely want to get out of bed for either one of these experiences!

“One night they woke us up because the aurora borealis was showing. It was in the middle of the night and all of us would have slept right through it if one of the staff wouldn’t have been “on guard”. That was really the “cherry on the pie”. Even though it was the middle of the night and the guides have probably seen the aurora borealis a million times they accompanied us, gave explanation and helped us take pictures of this magnificent display.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

The Great Ice Bear Adventure maximizes viewing potential by giving guests the opportunities to see polar bears from a variety of locations, whether it be on the nature trails, from the lodge’s viewing tower, or right from the lodge windows.

Early "riser" outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

Early “riser” outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

“We had polar bears posing for us in all kinds of situations. We brought a big lens but the bears were so close we could easily have taken many pictures with our mobile phone and they still would have been awesome. The big advantage of the lodge is that the polar bears (and many other animals) come really close and even if you are not very much into hiking you can still see them right from the comfort of the lodge.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

A trip to Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge Lodge means guests will see polar bears like no one on a Churchill town-only package can.

“It was an absolutely awesome experience. We chose this tour operator because we liked the hiking aspect of the trip. The trip includes one tundra buggy day where you do see a lot of polar bears from the vehicle. But walking with polar bears brings your arctic safari adventure to a whole new level.” ~ Werner, Zurich, Switzerland