What Are You Doing Up Here?

6/7/2013 11:38:37 AM

What Are You Doing Up Here?

Andrew Derocher

As many field biologists can attest, a bad day in the field beats any good day in the office. I got into wildlife biology because I like being outdoors. Of course, I spend most of my time at a keyboard, but the fieldwork is what makes it all meaningful: seeing polar bears in their habitat builds perspective. 

I’ve learned a lot on this latest field trip. I really wanted to see what the ice was like in the Viscount Melville Sound area now that it has shifted from thick, unproductive multiyear ice to thinner annual ice. This polar bear population lies at the western edge of the famed Northwest Passage. It has been 20 years since the last polar bear inventory here. Based on reproductive rates, survival rates, and harvest levels, population projection models indicated that the population should have increased about 5% a year. If so, we should expect to see more than twice the number of bears in the area than we did during our last count.

Our search for the bears didn’t support a doubling of the population, but our field conditions were far from optimal. Normally, we like clear blue skies and a fresh skiff of snow that makes it easy to see polar bear tracks. Instead, we worked under an overcast sky and hard-packed old snow. We’ll need at least another year or two of study to get a better sense of the population, but we saw very few ringed seals and without a big population of polar bear food, there’s unlikely to be a lot of polar bears.

On May 5th we made a trip largely directed by trying to stay out of heavy clouds. We worked our way eastward along northern Banks Island, following some reasonable habitat near shore. Signs of older polar bears tracks helped but we weren’t seeing many new ones. We kept moving east and across Prince of Wales Strait to Richard Collinson Inlet on northern Victoria Island. The inlet was named after Sir Richard Collinson, the captain on the H.M.S. Enterprise (No this was not the spaceship of Captain Kirk—Captain Collinson was sent to find the lost Franklin Expedition.) Regardless, we didn’t see much that looked like good polar bear habitat: it was too flat and thus wasn’t good ringed seal pupping habitat. We found our fuel cache and began making our way back west, trying to stay in the patches of sunlight.

We were heading towards an area where I’d noted some tracks on the way east. The day was shaping up to be a bust when our pilot, Pat Fonseca, spotted a darkish bump far off that “didn’t look right” (hopefully meaning a bear). Fortunately, it was and we caught an adult male showing a few signs of mating activity from fights over a female.

It didn’t take us long to handle the bear and we were soon on our way, but it was now 9 p.m. and there were signs ahead that the weather was perhaps a bit dodgy again. Flying back along the coast of Banks Island, I spotted a rather dark object on the ice. It was moving fast and while muskox sometimes wander onto the ice, this object wasn’t moving like a muskox. Also, from a long way off, it was hard to get a perspective on its size. We moved over to the “dark object” and saw a rather lovely grizzly bear. Many are familiar with grizzlies hybridizing with polar bears in this area of the world (as they have many times in the past few hundred thousand years) but seeing one this far north was incredibly cool.

Despite having the equipment and permits allowing us to capture the bear, I made the decision to leave it be. It was late, it had been a long day, but most important, the weather ahead of us left a lot to be desired. I’ve learned over the years that caution is critical and pushing weather is a good way to get into big trouble in the Arctic.

We tried to go above the weather but there was too much cloud cover. In the field, we have to obey visual flight rules, which means we have to maintain contact with the ground. (Flying over the clouds might work, but only if you don’t have to fly down through them to land! Losing the horizon is a sure way to crash.)

We had to poke our way along slowly, all the while having discussions about whether we should head far back to our other camp in the east. Quietly I pondered sleeping out on the ice. I’ve done that before and it isn’t fun but, neither is flying in dangerous weather. Fortunately, it was just a band of bad weather and the conditions improved enough that we made it back to Polar Bear Cabin.

This is the third installment in a five-part series on a population count of the Viscount Melville Sound polar bears. You can read the first, second, fourth, and fifth blog posts here.

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