11/6/2014 1:54:34 PM

Whomping Willows and Polar Bears

If there are whomping willows on the tundra, today's the day for them to be out in full force. In reality, they're more like vibrating willows that are shaking in the wind. The wind is screaming in from the north and smacking about everything in its path. It's a howler outside—but I'm snug inside a rocking Tundra Buggy, where it's easy to forget about what it must be like for the polar bears curled up in the little bit of shelter a willow on the tundra can provide. 

At these temperatures, there's no way the bears are cold. Uncomfortable? Yes, given that willows here are no more than waist-high. They don't provide a lot of protection, but you take what you can get if you're a polar bear. 

Watching the bears throughout the day, it's almost as if they sensed the winds were coming. They were active, some were sparring, some were traveling, but by late afternoon, the bears were hunkered down and settling in.

It's early November and there's no sign of ice anywhere near the coast around Churchill. Normal? Not really. When I first came here in 1984, the ice would have been building around the shore by now and the bears would have been getting ready to take off for their "real" home. The sea ice is where these bears want to be. Where they need to be.

The mercury is falling and this bodes well for making ice, but it's still days or weeks before the bears will be able to continue their migration. We're studying the migration of the bears using our radio-tracking GPS collars that link to satellites. The timing of the migration is a key issue. When do the polar bears arrive and when do they leave? The trends are clear: the ice breaks up earlier and freezes later.

The migration in western Hudson Bay seems to have two basic forms: those bears that follow the coastline north and those that wait near Churchill and depart when the sea ice forms. The bears that follow the coastline are the ones most likely to get in trouble with humans. Arviat lies just north of Manitoba and the bears that follow the coast are the ones that get into trouble when they come into town. Some are hunted by Inuit living in Arviat. Other bears are killed as "problem bears."

Arviat is improving its problem bear management strategies, but it has a long way to go before it matches the efforts of Manitoba. A delayed freeze-up means more time for the bears to get into trouble. Fortunately, it's mainly males and subadult bears that take the coastal route.

The advantage of migrating north is that the ice forms earlier. Most adult females with young depart from the Manitoba coast directly onto the sea ice. Regardless, females with cubs are protected from harvest.

Once the bears get onto the sea ice, they're almost repelled by land; they move as far offshore as they can as fast as they can. It's likely that naÌøve seals that haven't seen a polar bear in months are vulnerable right along the ice edge. For some odd reason, seals often surface right along the ice edge: at least until they "remember" what polar bears are about.

With luck, the dropping temperatures will continue. With skill, the bears will find some seals. With intellect, we can find meaningful solutions to climate change.

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