A lone polar bear on sea ice

Do polar bears transported north from the holding facility in Churchill go on to cause problems in other communities? A new study is using satellite-linked ear tags to gain insights on the behavior of relocated bears.

© Mike Lockhart

10/16/2019 8:36:55 PM

Tracking Problem Polar Bears

By Dr. Andrew E. Derocher

As remote as polar bears seem to most people, for many northerners, polar bears are their next-door neighbors. As with any neighbor, sometimes the relationship is fairly neutral. But it's easy to  see the problem when your neighbor strolls over to your place and eats your food, threatens your family, and then destroys your property.

Monitoring human-polar bear interactions has increased over the past years as the five Arctic nations in the polar bear’s range developed a coordinated system to record conflicts. It’s too early to get a full picture of the issue but it’s clear that as the climate has warmed, conflicts with polar bears have increased across the Arctic.

While some Inuit and social scientists believe the increase in conflict is the result of “too many polar bears,” most polar bear scientists view the issue as a response to the bears being on land for longer periods due to sea ice loss and an associated decrease in body condition that results in them seeking alternative food sources (e.g., garbage, cached food, dog food).

One particularly fraught situation is taking place in Nunavut, where conflicts have led to the deaths of both people and polar bears. Some of Nunavut’s bears are part of the Western Hudson Bay population, which is shared with the adjacent province of Manitoba and includes Churchill’s polar bears. Studies show that this population has declined from about 1,200 bears to about 800, even as the number of “problem” bears in Nunavut has increased—a seemingly contradictory scenario until you realize that it’s entirely consistent with nutritionally stressed bears spending longer periods of time onshore.

Churchill and the Government of Manitoba have gone to great expense to reduce conflict. The Polar Bear Alert Program is a model solution, but it’s expensive and communities farther north lack the funding and infrastructure to replicate it. The focus is on prevention and early intervention. The primary goals are to remove attractants, educate people about bear safety, and work to keep people and the bears apart. A key activity involves transporting problem bears to the polar bear holding facility, also known as the “polar bear jail.”

Polar bears that can’t be deterred from entering town or cause too much trouble spend time in the slammer. We know that the program works incredibly well in Churchill,  but what happens when conservation officers release those bears? Do they go on to cause problems in Nunavut, farther north? This is a niche for research.

In 2017, in collaboration with the Manitoba Government, we started deploying ear tag satellite-linked radios on polar bears prior to their release from the holding facility by the Polar Bear Alert Program. The ear tags send us one location per day for up to six months, allowing us to follow the path of the newly released “offenders.” Many of these problem bears are shepherded north in a net under a helicopter in the hope that they’ll continue their northward migration and not return to Churchill to cause trouble. The bears aren’t flown a long distance, but until we started tracking them, we had little insight on what they did. Do the relocated bears just get a boost on causing trouble farther north? Do they chill and wait for the ice to return?

We’re just starting to analyze our data, but a preliminary look suggests that most of the problem bears move directly onto the sea ice and only a few head into communities farther north or back to Churchill. We’ll have more answers before long and hope to provide concrete recommendations on which bears may get into trouble farther north.

The data is important. One solution proposed in Nunavut is to reduce the number of bears through more liberal harvest. The peril of such an approach is that we have no experience with how many bears would need to be killed for people to be absolutely safe. Would reducing the population by half make it safer for people? This is also a shared population and reducing the number of bears would have major consequences for the tourists that come to Churchill.

Science can’t save polar bears but it can help both the people and the bears find a way to smooth their relationship in a changing Arctic. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap, but we owe it to the people that live day to day with polar bears and the bears themselves to find smarter ways to co-exist. In the longer term, it’s a greenhouse gas emission issue that will determine the fate of the bears (and us) but along that path, we have to find solutions at each fork in the trail.

Dr. Andrew E. Derocher is a biology professor at the University of Alberta and a long-time scientific advisor to Polar Bears International. He has studied polar bears since 1984. Polar Bears International is helping to fund the research study.

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