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

Posts Tagged ‘Hudson Bay polar bears’

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.

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast to lead November 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Award-winning photographer/author Dennis Fast to lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Dennis Fast will lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River.

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast will once again lead a Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge this year, from November 10-16.

The Polar Bear Photo Safari takes place during prime polar bear season, when the bears congregate in large numbers on the Hudson Bay coast waiting for the Bay to freeze so they can begin their annual seal hunt. The Polar Bear Photo Safari attracts professional and amateur photographers from around the world, primarily due to its rare ground-level access to polar bears and the resulting specialized photo opportunities.

Churchill Wild’s chief photographer for over 20 years, Fast is one of Canada’s best known photographers. His images have appeared in numerous calendars and books, including Wapusk: White Bear of the North, which showcases stunning images of polar bears and their Hudson Bay environs, and addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

Fast’s images also appear in his most recent book, Princess: A Special Polar Bear which tells the story of a mother polar bear who teaches her cubs about life in the Arctic regions of Canada. Designed to be read aloud and to connect children with the excitement of the outdoors, Princess details the relationship between Princess and her cubs, Braveheart and Wimpy, and touches on many of the same challenges and issues parents and children face every day in their own families.

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge. Dennis fast photo

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Calendars that have featured Fast’s photos include those published by National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, Inner Reflections, Manitoba Autopac (including an exclusive polar bear calendar in 2010), Parks & Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and many more. Thirty-five of Fast’s best polar bear photos are also on display in the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) in Winnipeg.

Fast’s expertise and experience photographing in extreme northern conditions have put him among the select photographers in the world with a talent for capturing the light and magical qualities of the north. He’s traveled extensively across Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Greenland, Iceland and the United States in pursuit of the perfect shot, but the polar bears of Hudson Bay will always be one of his favourite subjects.

“Polar Bears are among the most magnificent predators on earth and have fascinated me since childhood,” said Fast in an earlier interview with book publisher Heartland Associates. “I never dreamed that someday I would actually walk in the land of Wapusk (Cree for white bear). I still remember in vivid detail my first sighting of a wild polar bear and the feeling of awe it inspired with its beauty and latent power. Since then, I have had many polar bear encounters, ­ from mothers and young cubs coming out of their dens, to adult males wrestling for supremacy.”

“When you’re on the ground and a polar bear gets close to you, the shot is that much more intimate,” said Fast. “You can’t get these types of shots from above, from a vehicle. You have to be there, on the ground. At the Lodge you can get them either by hiking over the tundra or through the specialized fence that surrounds the Lodge.”

Polar bears wrestling eye-to-eye on the sea ice at Seal River. Dennis Fast photo.

Eye-to-eye on the sea ice.

The beauty of the Seal River Heritage Lodge location is that polar bears have to walk by the point of land that juts out into Hudson Bay where the Lodge is situated, 60 km north of Churchill and nine km north of the Seal River. Polar bears are naturally curious. They smell the cooking at the Lodge and they’re also interested in the activity.

It’s not unusual to have polar bears meander right up to the front door of Seal River Heritage Lodge, and at various times of the year bears will spend days lying around the Lodge enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of humans. It’s a unique environment where humans can meet polar bears in their natural home amidst spectacular scenery.

Using a super wide angle lenses you can not only get unobstructed shots of the bears up close, but also of the landscape in the background. The wide buffalo fence keeps the bears out while still allowing for exceptional photos. Smaller zooms can go right through for really intimate shots.

And it’s not just about polar bears. Last year there was a herd of caribou at the Lodge and three years ago there were over 3,000 caribou in the area, although the actual number of caribou around the Lodge at any given time depends on weather patterns. Arctic foxes have been known to come right into the compound and just about take food out of your hands. There are also arctic hares, and in 2009 photographers were lucky enough to catch a White Gyrfalcon. Additionally, the unique combination of location and weather at the Lodge can  result in phenomenal northern lights viewing.

“Through guiding photo tours and staying at the Lodge I’ve met some fascinating people,” said Fast. “From professional photographers and photojournalists at elite publications like National Geographic and the L.A. Times, to some of the world’s wealthiest people, I’ve traded stories with some very interesting and enjoyable company. I’ve met people from Japan, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany and the USA at the Lodge. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Polar bears relaxing north of Churchill at Seal River Heritage Lodge after sparring. Dennis Fast photo.

After the battle…

“The facilities at the Lodge are excellent. The food is superb, prepared from the family’s award-winning cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears, and the trips are all-inclusive. That’s important.

“Expenses can add up on a trip to Churchill when you take into account airfare, hotels, hot meals, day tours etc. So the cost of staying at the Lodge is actually quite reasonable when you consider it’s an all-inclusive adventure vacation and you’re actually staying in the wild, experiencing the polar bear’s natural environment. Yet you still have all the comforts of home along with outstanding meals and great company.”

And of course, a chance to meet polar bears, eye-to-eye.

Who made Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge a success this year? Everyone.

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Well, once again we find ourselves in the off season, so that means sitting around the office drinking coffee and Baileys in our pajamas and telling stories.

Kidding!

Sure there is some storytelling going on, after all, you helped us create some wonderful memories once again this year! But there are more exciting projects on the horizon for next year at Churchill Wild, and that means work, enjoyable as it may be.

Some great things happened this season, especially at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. I can’t help thinking back to the seemingly endless flights, the hauling of building materials, the long hours and the extraordinary teamwork that resulted in the construction of our beautiful new viewing and dining lounge.

Morning, afternoon and evening we were treated to wildlife outside those big picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay. And what a fabulous place to dine and socialize after a day of walking with polar bears!

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Robert Postma photo.

It was all worth it.

The wolves, black bears, polar bears, moose and the crazy list of birds that followed us from June until September has my head spinning, not to mention the fascinating guest that followed us along the Hudson Bay coast, trudging through the mud and scanning the horizon for movement. Or just sitting in the willows eating berries and laughing at us like nobody was watching.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was a delight to be involved with this season and I look forward to many more Arctic Safaris in the seasons to come.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake started up after a short stint back home with my wife Doreen and the boys, and then I was off again, this time prepping camp for our time “playing” in the snow with polar bears and Arctic Foxes.

Our resident polar bear “Scarbrow” appeared early in the season, which shocked all of us, as we were sure he wouldn’t be back to tolerate us again. Thankfully we were wrong! Scarbrow came and went all season and posed for many fabulous photos.

Scarbrow the polar bear, Dymond Lake Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Scarbrow was back again at Dymond Lake Lodge!

The Arctic Foxes this year at Dymond Lake were phenomenal. When Terry and I closed up camp we counted 20 plus on the lake and around the compound. There were also a couple of snowy owls and an awesome gyrfalcon that joined us in the evenings as the northern lights put on some incredible shows.

I thought I would be back to sitting around in the office for the winter, but Mike (Reimer) has already moved me off my chair and aimed me at a construction project at Nanuk that could only be rivalled by last year’s feat. So off I go again with a brain full of everything from airplanes, windows, carpenters and polar bears. It’s shaping up to be another awesome year at Churchill Wild and we have not even rung the bell for 2014 yet!

I would like to thank everyone involved at our lodges this year, whether you were a boss, staff, wife and kids, contractor, photographer, guide, culinary genius, pilot or guest. You all made this year little bit easier; the impossible possible; the hard work worth it; and certainly a lot more fun!

I look back now at what we’ve accomplished; at the lives of those we have touched; and the memories we’ve created; with humble thanks, and I can’t help but get excited about doing it all over again next year, with all of you…

and the polar bears!

Polar bear standing at Dymond Lake Lodge, Great Ice Bear Adventure.

Where did everybody go?

 

Great start to 2012 Polar Bear Photo Safari

This message came in today from Mike Reimer at Seal River Heritage Lodge, where our Polar Bear Photo Safari is in full swing!

Polar Bear Mom with Cubs at Seal River Lodge - Missi Mandel Photo

Polar Bear Mom with Cub at Seal River Lodge - Missy Mandel Photo

This week guests from the US, Netherlands, Germany, France, the UK and Russia are finishing up as a group, and guests from France, Hawaii, Thailand and Taiwan are about to settle in.

Hey all you Polar Bear lovers out there!

Our bear season is once again off to a “roaring start” with wildly variable weather wreaking havoc with flight schedules but nonetheless offering visitors some incredible wildlife opportunities.

Freeze up appears to be right on target as our bears wait patiently for the coming ice, which will once more usher them out to their hunting grounds. The bears are all in excellent condition, no doubt due to the late ice breakup this past summer which gave them good access to seals and continuous hunting opportunities all the way through to the end of July.

Missy Mandel has been kind enough to share some of the fantastic ground level polar bear shots that our ecolodges have become famous for.

 Photo credits to Missy Mandel.

Summer Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge New for 2012! Limited availability Aug. 26 to Sept. 1.

King Polar Bear at Nanuk.

King Polar Bear at Nanuk

Churchill Wild will host the world’s first ever Summer Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in 2012, offering photographers rare on-the-ground polar bear access and exceptional photo opportunities unavailable anywhere else on the planet.

The new Summer Polar Bear Photo Safari represents an expansion on the success of Churchill Wild’s Polar Bear Photo Safari and Arctic Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

“Last year was our first time running a full program at Nanuk”, said Rick Kemp, Director of Marketing and Communications at Churchill Wild. “We finally had a chance to see everything the area had to offer. Guests were treated to Churchill Wild’s trademark one-of-a-kind polar bear experience with on-the-ground polar bear viewing, but we also discovered wolves, black bears, moose, skunk, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and thousands of migratory snow geese.”

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from the air.

Getting ready to land at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Located in one of the most historically significant areas of Canada on the southern coast of Hudson Bay within the Cape Tatnam Wildlife Management Area, the Summer Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk will have very limited space availability from August 26 to September 1, 2012, and will be led by Churchill Wild in-house professional wildlife photographer and author Dennis Fast. Space will be very limited at a price of $6,395. For more information please call Churchill Wild at 1 ( 204) 377-5090 or e-mail info@churchillwild.com.

“People are starting to want something wilder and less traditional,” said Fast. “You’re on the polar bears’ home turf up here. You’re on the ground with the polar bears. It doesn’t get any wilder than that. When you’re eye-to-eye with the polar bears it elevates their status. You really get a sense of how big and powerful they really are, and it shows in your photographs.”

Polar bear cubs with Mom at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Polar bear cubs with Mom at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

The most compelling attraction for wildlife photographers at Nanuk is the high incidence of mothers and cubs in the area, due to two newly discovered polar bear denning sites on the edge of the Boreal Forest. The Northern Lights can also be quite spectacular at Nanuk when skies are clear, and there are beautiful interior lagoons which also make a great backdrop for photographs of the mothers and cubs.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located 40 kilometers east of York Factory, a trading post that was established in 1684 by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the early years of the fur trade that played a major part in the exploration and development of Canada.

“We still find remnants of old ships occasionally in the mud flats,” said Churchill Wild’s Mike Reimer, perhaps referring to the Battle of Hudson Bay in 1697, the largest Arctic naval battle ever fought. “From brass railings to cannons to old grave sites, you never know what you might find. And our guides are direct descendants of the Western Woods Cree, the “Home Guard Indians” who worked with the Hudson Bay Company over 300 years ago at the original settlements — guiding, hunting, interpreting and procuring wild game and furs for them.”

Polar bears walking by the polar bear viewing area at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming with... polar bears walking by!

Guests at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge may very well be walking in the footsteps of some very famous explorers during their daily hikes along the sandy and grassy tidal flats in search of polar bears and adventure. But despite taking place in one of the wildest areas on the planet, the Summer Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk offers all the comforts of home with the Lodge’s newly renovated cabins that include private en-suite washrooms and showers.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner take place in the separate main dining room at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and the main living room/polar bear viewing area at the Lodge provides a gathering place to relax, share stories and photos after a wonderful day of exploring and photographing, unless of course… you’re interrupted by polar bears walking by.

When most people think of seeing polar bears they have visions of snow and ice. Nanuk offered us the spectacular backdrop of the fall colours on the tundra to contrast with the great white bears that were our constant companions. Add to that the millions of birds that stopped at Nanuk on their way south and, if you can’t get a great photo here, you won’t get one anywhere! — Kerry and Leona Orchard, Nanaimo, BC