11/11/2014 4:28:07 PM

Monitoring Polar Bears in Western Hudson Bay

This November marked the 5th year of Manitoba Conservation's aerial survey of polar bears along the Hudson Bay coast, a patrol that stretches from Nunavut in the North to Ontario in the East. The flights cover 1,400 km (870 miles) of mostly wild coastline, surrounded by tundra to the north and boreal forest to the east—beautiful country. Daryl Hedman and Vicki Trim, regional biologists for Manitoba Conservation, lead the surveys, which are funded by Polar Bears International®. I was fortunate enough to join them on the first flight in 2009, so was keen to get back out to see the country and the bears. 

Daryl times the flights as close to freeze-up as possible to maximize the number of polar bears that are active along the coast waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when weather becomes more difficult and less stable. High winds, blowing snow, icy conditions—all present challenges to a helicopter at a low altitude.

We're lucky on our first day out, which takes us to the northern border: flat light in the morning turns to clear skies and sunshine by mid-day. Polar bears are typically less abundant and more spread out along this part of the coast and this year is no exception. We spot 18 bears in total, mostly adult males, and eight fresh seal kills. Those successful kills are interesting finds and raise more questions than answers. Daryl carefully samples each kill to determine the seal species and, in some cases, the seal's age (possible when we find a jaw bone and teeth), while Vicki takes GPS-referenced photos to mark the location and document the site. They will send the samples to the International Polar Bear Conservation Center in Winnipeg for genetic identification.

On day two, we awake to heavy wet snow and low visibility. After waiting it out and hoping for a change, Daryl and our pilot Chase call it a day. It's just too risky both for flying and the possibility of getting stuck on the coast for the night. Sleeping in the helicopter with large male polar bears nearby is not something any of us are interested in doing tonight!

The next day starts slowly with a low ceiling and occasional squalls. We are a bit more persistent today as the weather in town is right on the edge and the forecast for the east actually looks good. Around midday we get a break and head east towards Cape Churchill. The next two legs of the journey are exciting: they hold the majority of the bears we are likely to see. Before long, we are calling out numbers from both sides of the helicopter.

At Cape Churchill, we turn south and the surrounding landscape quickly changes to full boreal forest. As we cruise east again, we bump into a pack of a dozen wolves just starting to move in on a group of moose in the willows near the beach. Given the late hour and our primary mission, we do not have time to observe the outcome and carry on. Still, it's amazing to see these predators in their natural habitat!

We make it a little bit east of the Nelson River before the light starts to fail; we then head to Manitoba Conservation's Marsh Point cabin for the night. The cabin sits on a bluff just downstream from historic York Factory near the mouth of the Hayes River. Daryl fires up the woodstove while Chase puts the helicopter to bed and we proceed to enjoy a hearty camp meal and a great night's sleep in the bush.

The weather holds for our final day, with temperatures are still at or above freezing. So far, we've only encountered thin intertidal ice along the shore or none at all. Hudson Bay proper remains ice-free to the horizon. Limited snow, and in a few places lack of snow, hamper our ability to see recent activity and follow tracks, but visibility remains fair to good.

We break away from the coast on three occasions to take advantage of being in this remote country. We have two camera traps to deploy and investigate a nearby palsa (low frost heave) complex as one possibility. Flying over, we count 12 possible polar bear dens. We cannot confirm if any are active and do not want to disturb them, so we fly on. Daryl and Vicki will return to a couple of these denning areas in the summer to look for hair samples and examine possible camera locations.

We decide to stop by two wolf dens on the way back to the coast to swap out batteries and memory cards on one remote camera and to deploy a new camera at another. Wolves only use these dens in the warmer months, so now is a perfect time to get the cameras ready for spring.

We end our survey at the border with Ontario. Over the last three days, we counted 250 polar bears along the coast. The majority of the polar bears we observed were males in fair to good condition. Family groups were few and far between, though; are there fewer cubs this year or have the families delayed moving up the coast due the warm weather?

One of the many questions these surveys give rise to concerns the summer distribution and possible segregation of polar bears onshore. Where do sub-adults go? Solitary females? Family groups? We hope to help answer these questions in the coming years.

As we fly back south towards Gilliam, we cross mile after mile of wild boreal forest, lakes, and muskeg—truly wild and remote land. Caribou trails used for generations by the Penn Island herd are embedded in this land and crisscross our flight path. I know changes are coming to these lands and seascapes of the north, changes that impact polar bears, other wildlife, and ultimately all of us. Yet I am heartened to see such large tracts of country where polar bears roam the coast and wolves, wolverine, and marten wander the forests.

We have so much still to learn, and, in spite of the challenges looming, so much to be hopeful about.

Our thanks to Banrock Station and the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for helping to fund this study.

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