Counting Churchill's Polar Bears

7/30/2011 5:00:00 AM

Counting Churchill's Polar Bears

A mother and cub in an ice-free Hudson Bay

Churchill's polar bears are forced ashore each summer when the ice melts on Hudson Bay. Scientists survey the bears each year to check on their status and condition.

Today I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac in Churchill, Manitoba. This is my first summer visit to the subarctic and the warm air catches me off guard. Typically I'm greeted with fall storms: low gray clouds blowing rain and snow across the flat landscape. But today the sky is absent of any clouds. The sun is shining and warms my face as I descend the stairway from the plane. The heat is almost too intense and forces me to loosen my jacket—a first, I must admit, for Churchill.

I'm here to assist Manitoba Conservation in a polar bear survey along the Hudson Bay coast. The polar bears in and around Churchill are part of the Western Hudson Bay population, which is one of the furthest south. When the warm months of summer arrive, these polar bears completely lose their ice habitat and therefore can't reach seals, their primary food source.

The warm summer months are more or less a waiting game for the bears. Most of them spend their time near the coast where they can wade in the water or sit in the sand, cooled by the sea breezes. As the temperatures in the area start dropping in October and November, the polar bears become more active and begin moving around in anticipation of the ice to come. But, for now, they're lounging around, waiting out the ever-increasing ice-free period until they can return to their seal-hunting grounds when the bay freezes again in winter.

Our goal for this trip is to count the bears and document their distribution along Manitoba's coast. We'll also check on their condition. This data is important for understanding how the population is faring.

Our trip will take us by helicopter from Churchill, Manitoba, to its border with Nunavut. Then we'll turn south and head back to Churchill for fuel. After we complete that leg, our helicopter will continue east to Cape Churchill and then turn south to follow the bay to historic York Factory to spend the night. After a night's rest in a small cabin we'll fire the rotor up and head east again to the border with Ontario. All in all, we'll fly 760 air miles by helicopter to count the bears along the coast.

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