Extending from the southern edge of Canada’s Hudson Bay, James Bay is a shallow inland sea bounded by Ontario, Quebec, and Nunavut. Located at 51-55 degrees north, James Bay lies at the southernmost edge of the polar bears’ range. Here, polar bears exist alongside boreal species like moose, black bear, and beaver, and experience one of the longest ice-free seasons across their range. From south to north, the region’s vegetation shifts from boreal forest to Arctic tundra, and the tree line disappears.

The eastern coast of James Bay, the Eeyou Marine Region, is the traditional territory of the Cree communities of Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji and Chisasibi who have cared for the land for millennia. In recent decades, community members have noticed changing polar bear abundance and distribution along the coast, with more polar bears being sighted while families are carrying out their traditional activities. These observations have prompted questions and concerns from residents regarding the region’s polar bear populations.

Map of James Bay

Previous work in James Bay has focused on population counts using techniques like aerial surveys and GPS collars but these methods have not always been supported by Eeyou Marine Region communities due to concerns about their invasiveness.

That’s why, two years ago, our team of Cree land stewards, researchers, and regional wildlife biologists came together to build a project that would gather information about polar bears in the Eeyou Marine Region using community-supported methods. In the summers of 2021 and 2022, we deployed 40 hair snares and camera traps across the east coast of James Bay to collect hundreds of polar bear hair samples and polar bear observations. The goal was to address community questions and fill knowledge gaps about the polar bears in James Bay.

Diagram of the hair snare and camera trap sampling station

Photo: Alexandra Langwieder

Diagram of the hair snare and camera trap sampling station.

Hair snares are commonly used to study black bears and grizzly bears but haven’t been applied frequently to polar bear research. Hair snares collect hair samples using a strand of barbed wire strung between posts with a scented lure in the center. As the polar bear crosses the wire to investigate the scent, hair is caught in the wire and community field teams return later to collect the sample. The hair samples provide information on polar bear genetics and diet. Camera traps take photos of each bear using the sampling station, which tells us about how effective the stations are at sampling and provides information on polar bear body condition and group composition.

We found that polar bears in the Eeyou Marine Region of James Bay were distributed on offshore islands more than nearshore and mainland areas during the ice-free summer season and that there are clear areas of high polar bear activity. Distance to the mainland was the most important factor linked to polar bear presence when compared with island size, vegetation types, and latitude. We also found that bears were in mostly average to fat body condition when we observed them in July and August. (These observations represent polar bear body condition early in the ice-free season; sea ice in James Bay forms in late November along the coast and in mid-December in the offshore areas, with variation from year to year.)

A polar bear mom and cub near the hair snare research project

Given the success of these methods in both engaging local communities in polar bear research and gathering missing information on polar bear populations, we recommend they be used to expand polar bear research and monitoring from communities across the North. The next steps of this project are to further investigate the genetic structures of polar bears in James Bay and find out how these bears interact with boreal species along the coast.

Alexandra Langwieder is a PhD student at the Northern Wildlife Knowledges Lab in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University.

Wemindji field crew headed to check sampling stations on an island in James Bay

Photo: Alexandra Langwieder

Wemindji field crew headed to check sampling stations on an island in James Bay. Community members actively participated in the research and project design.