Bear Tracker Update: It’s Freeze-Up!



01 Dec 2022

Each year the Polar Bears International Bear Tracker follows GPS-collared female polar bears from the Hudson Bay region, allowing us a glimpse into the secret world of polar bears on the sea ice. This year, we are again tracking bears from both the Western Hudson Bay (WHB) and Southern Hudson Bay (SHB) populations and will be able to compare their movements. We look forward to the months ahead, watching the different decisions these bears make while hunting seals and navigating the shifting ice before they return to land next summer. 

GPS tracking is critical when it comes to better understanding polar bear decisions and movements. Fine-scale information about when and where polar bears travel helps us understand what they need and why. This allows us to better predict how bears will respond to shrinking sea ice and, in turn,  can help us better protect the species. However, only adult females can wear GPS collars due to the shape of their necks, which means there is a lot we don’t know about adult males and young bears. To help fill gaps in our knowledge, Polar Bears International is spearheading new Burr-on-Fur tags to help us track those bears. Understanding all ages and sexes will allow us to make more effective conservation plans and decisions, especially as the polar bears’ sea ice habitat continues to decline. 

Polar bears in this region are used to ice-free periods as they live in the Seasonal Sea Ice Ecoregion, where the sea ice melts completely every summer and freezes-up every winter. Though polar bears lose access to their seal prey and mostly fast when on land, losing up to one kilogram per day of body weight, they are well adapted to the feasting/fasting lifestyle as long as they get fat enough before the ice-free period and get back on the ice to hunt seals again within a reasonable timeframe. Hudson Bay saw a relatively on-time break-up this summer and freeze-up was on time this fall. As a result, we saw many healthy bears this fall, including  multiple moms with cubs. However, these bears are on land already more than 40 days longer than their grandparents were and, on average, the ice-free season is lengthening about one day/year in Hudson Bay. Continued warming will cause continued pressure on polar bear reproduction and health; the WHB population has already declined more than 30% since the 1980s. We must protect their sea ice habitat before it’s too late. 

For now, Hudson Bay continues to freeze over and polar bears are searching for blubber to fill their bellies. As the ice has been freezing we have enjoyed watching the bears make different decisions as they slowly move onto the ice forming along the coast. One bear (Yvette) has already headed far north up the coast while others have stayed near Churchill, Manitoba, or even farther south along the coast of Ontario. Each bear is unique and we look forward to following them for the next year, watching where they travel out on the cold, dark, frozen ocean. Though it sounds tough to us, it’s a polar bear’s paradise—please help us keep it that way!

Please stay tuned for International Polar Bear Day events happening on and around February 27th. 

In the meantime, consider supporting polar bear conservation in different ways this holiday season. By working on community solutions to lower carbon emissions and protect sea ice, we can work together to keep polar bears roaming the Arctic sea ice, always.

Sponsored Bears

1. Anuri - X19827, PBI Storytelling Bear

This 22-year-old is a mom to one young cub-of-the-year but she’s not letting that slow her down. Anuri has traveled quite a bit already over the past month, heading from inland in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, to Cape Churchill in just over a week in early November. Then, Anuri headed out onto the ice as soon as she could in mid-November, probably ready  to find a decent meal after many months fasting on land. It seems like maybe that had been a bit too optimistic for the ice, though, so Anuri and cub soon returned south west to the coast of Wapusk, then changed tactics, veering northwest, up the coast of Hudson Bay. This family is currently just off the coast of Nunavut on some landfast ice, no doubt searching for seals and making up for the previous months. Anuri’s young cub will be watching closely to learn how to hunt and navigate the shifting ice; luckily, it still has about 1.5 years left with mom to learn all it can about being a polar bear. We look forward to following this family in the months to come.

2. Arctic Ambassador Bear - X33203, Arctic Ambassador Center

This 18-year-old is a mom to two yearlings who started her journey this year near the coast of Hudson Bay in Wapusk National Park. Once temperatures started to cool down in late October, our Arctic Ambassador bear headed north up the coast toward Cape Churchill (maybe she came close to our Cape Cams?). She is now on the strip of sea ice that has frozen up along the coast just off of the Cape, not too far from land but still in an area where she can hunt. She’s not a big traveler so far, but that could change especially with two older yearlings who can be a bit more help hunting, if she’s taught them well! We can’t wait to see where they go next.

3. Betty White - X33570,

This 10-year-old is a mom to a single cub and both were in great condition when Churchill tourists saw them earlier this year. For at least several days this November, Betty and her cub were hanging out in the Wildlife Management Area east of Churchill, Manitoba, where Tundra Buggies roam. They were avoiding males and sniffing around the Tundra Buggy Lodge for several days, and checking out  the visitors, too. Betty’s tracks show that she zig-zagged in this area for a while in early November, patiently waiting for enough ice to freeze. As soon as the ice was stable enough, Betty and her cub headed straight out on the ice that’s frozen to the coast, called landfast ice. Recently she made a big movement west, bypassing Churchill but still staying pretty close to land. We know there are seals out there, so hopefully she’s caught one or two already. Her young cub will be watching closely to learn how to hunt and navigate the shifting ice; luckily, it still has about 1.5 years left with mom. We look forward to following this family in the months to come. 

4. Portia - X33829, Natural Exposures

Six-year-old Portia is a young mom to a single cub—this may be her first cub ever! Even though she’s inexperienced, Portia knew where to go this fall, hanging out just east of Churchill in early November near where other moms and cubs were roaming. As soon as the ice started freezing up, Portia was ready. She headed out with her cub by mid-November in search of a seal and recently made a big movement north up the coast, no doubt ready to roam farther as the ice keeps freezing up across the bay. Her cub has a lot left to learn from mom, and will be soaking up all the lessons on hunting and navigating sea ice in the coming months. Good luck to them both!

7. X33565, Canada Goose

This 10-year-old is a mom to two cubs and has taken her time getting to the coast this year. Her cubs are young and with two in tow, traveling can be a bit slower! As of mid-November this family was still slightly inland when others were already getting on the ice, but she eventually got to the coast right as the ice was freezing. This could be a sign that mom is in good shape and not desperately rushing to the coast to hunt, or maybe she’s extra protective of her cubs and trying to avoid some big males. Either way, she has a lot on her paws juggling two young cubs and teaching them how to hunt slippery seals while navigating shifting sea ice. The cubs still have 1.5 years left with mom, so they have lots of time to soak up all her lessons. We look forward to seeing where  they go next!

15. Yvette - X17402, Frontiers North Adventures

This 18-year-old is a mom to one cub and has already surprised us with her choices, which are very different from her cohort! Starting in early November Yvette absolutely motored north up the  west coast of Hudson Bay, bypassing communities and rarely slowing down. She was on a mission to find the first sea ice of the season, and she likely succeeded. She recently headed out farther onto the ice, though she’s since returned a bit closer to land. She is still in an area with lots of ice though, and hopefully finding lots of food. Her cub is learning to keep up with mom, hopefully learning  that hard work pays off in the search for seals. So far this family has moved much farther than any others we are tracking and we can’t wait to find out what they do next!