Two polar bears share a seal kill.

Two polar bears share a seal kill, an event that attracted more than 20 bears. This was just one of a number of unusual sightings in Churchill this fall.

© Kieran McIver/Polar Bears International

12/9/2020 3:09:37 PM

A Season of Firsts

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

To say this year has been full of surprises is an understatement. 2020 has reminded us of many things—the certainty of change, nature’s ability to surprise us (for better and worse), the importance of family and friends, and the fragility of life itself.

I certainly did not plan to be mid-travel for several European-based meetings in early March at the start of what became a global pandemic. Nor did I imagine I would be the sole staff member for Polar Bears International traveling to Churchill to work with our Manitoba-based team on outreach and research this autumn. Yet there I was, fully masked and stepping off the partially filled plane into a dramatically quiet Churchill airport following my two-week quarantine in Winnipeg. For a community that relies on year-round tourism, it was a difficult time for many as most visitors simply could not come.

A curious polar bear stands for a better view
A curious polar bear stands for a better view. Few visitors were able to travel to Churchill this fall due to the pandemic. © Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International.

At Polar Bears International, we have been relatively fortunate during this year of challenge. Our technology-based outreach was able to quickly pivot and create a wealth of new content for educators and people suddenly stuck at home. We applied lessons learned in the spring and summer to reinvent our fall outreach and Tundra Connections broadcasts by blending live feeds from Churchill with experts ported in from around the world.

Our research team was very lucky as most of our colleagues across the Arctic saw project after project postponed or cancelled. By pure chance, our Svalbard den monitoring was in motion just before March. Across the spring and early summer our team co-authored four peer-reviewed publications spanning a range of topics that all proved quite timely, from polar bear den disturbance and den detection studies to research on bear spray performance and broader population ecology. We were also able to maintain our technology-based research initiatives: using ground radar to detect approaching polar bears; refining synthetic aperture radar to improve polar bear den detection tools, conducted in partnership with Brigham Young University; and initiating the first in-field testing of new less-invasive polar bear tracking tags with our partners at 3M.

A new prototype tracking device
One of the new "burr on fur" tracking devices we're testing this fall. © Polar Bears International.

I was also on the ground with our Churchill team operating our live polar bear cameras from Tundra Buggy One. In a normal year, we would share the viewing area with several Tundra Buggies filled with visitors—this year we were often alone or one of just a few vehicles watching the bears. A combination of decreased activity and pure luck led us to observe several firsts: the first female with three cubs of the year seen in the Wapusk Management Area since 1996, our first sightings of a wolverine and a pine marten along the coast, a rare close grouping of at least 21 bears, including males and family groups, all sharing a recent seal kill, and one mum and two yearling cubs that were unusually vocal.

A gathering of polar bears to feed on a seal kill.
More than 20 polar bears, including moms and cubs, gathered to feed on a seal kill. © Kieran McIver/Polar Bears International.

A wolverine along the shore of Hudson Bay
Our first-ever sighting of a wolverine on the shores of Hudson Bay. © Geoff York/Polar Bears International.

Overall, the polar bears we saw this fall were in good body condition, tended to be younger bears, and were generally more active than in recent years past. Curiously, the Polar Bear Alert Program—tasked with minimizing dangerous encounters between residents and bears—had a very quiet year as well, with few reports of activity until late October and only five bears captured and relocated by the time I headed south in the third week of November.

2020 marked the beginning of what should be the third decent year in a row for the bears of Hudson Bay. This part of the Arctic had a fairly normal ice melt in the spring, a cool and short summer, and what appears to be a historically normal freeze up as most bears near Churchill were moving onto shore fast ice by November 13th. This timeline is important as polar bear young need three good years in a row to successfully make it from cubs to independent sub-adult bears and then, hopefully, to new adults in the population.

There is no doubt that, in the big picture, the challenges polar bears face are immense—but embedded in this difficult year, these healthy family groups gave me a spark of hope for the species and our shared future.

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