Polar bear mom with two cubs in a snowy landscape

© Dick and Valerie Beck/Polar Bears International

10/30/2020 4:36:04 PM

Polar Bear Tracker Fall 2020

Key points:

  • Polar bear GPS collars will not be deployed this fall in Churchill, Manitoba due to current restrictions
  • We still plan to track some polar bears on the Polar Bears International Bear Tracker via GPS ear tags that will be deployed by Manitoba Sustainable Development’s Polar Bear Alert team
  • GPS ear tags help monitor movements, prevent human-polar bear conflict, and give insights into the best management practices during this critical sea ice freeze-up season

By Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist

Another fall means another polar bear season in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Usually this includes kicking off the tracking of Western Hudson Bay polar bears and monitoring their movements onto and over the freezing-up sea ice, where they can return to hunting seals. However, 2020 has changed how we do a lot of things, including polar bear research.

Back in the spring, scientists suspended polar bear research programs to keep northern communities, themselves, and polar bears safe. It was not yet known if polar bears could contract COVID-19, and polar bear fieldwork involves working closely together for extended periods of time.

Though it now seems that polar bears are probably safe from this coronavirus, most research programs are still on pause due to funding cutbacks, human health concerns, travel restrictions, etc. That said, there will still be some tracking of polar bears in the fall of 2020, it will just look a little different.

A polar bear mom and cubPhoto copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

For the last several decades, researchers have collared a subset of female polar bears with cubs near Churchill, Manitoba each September. These collars generally last 1-2 years and regularly upload detailed location data to a satellite; researchers can download the data from the satellite as needed.

Unfortunately, with no collaring program this year, we will not get such detailed long-term data and will not be able to compare 2020/2021 movements to those over the last 20-30 years. However, we still have a good option: GPS ear tags.

In recent years, technology has improved enough to allow GPS transmitters to shrink to the point where they can fit in a small ear tag. While collars can only be fitted on adult females (males have necks thicker than their heads so the collars slip off), GPS ear tags can go on bears of either sex and most ages. GPS ear tags only last about 2-6 months but will still regularly upload crucial data about what the bears are doing. This is especially important during the time of year when they are hungriest: freeze-up.

By the fall, the Western Hudson Bay bears have been fasting on land for more than 4 months already and are ready for their next meal. This often makes them bolder about approaching communities. Manitoba Sustainable Development’s Polar Bear Alert (PBA) team has been putting out GPS ear tags over the last several years on problem bears that come through Churchill. They capture bears that come too close to the town of Churchill and either move them away immediately or briefly house them at their Holding Facility before releasing them far from town. The PBA program helps keep people and polar bears safer during a time of year when human-bear conflict can be at an all-time high—a period when the bears are hungry and (usually) people are visiting from out of town and are not as aware of polar bear safety.

Lone polar bears striding towards cameraPhoto copyright Craig Taylor/Polar Bears International.

Putting GPS ear tags on bears captured via this program has many benefits including:

  1. giving insight into how/when polar bears move onto the sea ice as it freezes-up, allowing scientists to compare movements to years with similar or different sea ice patterns;
  2. providing data on both female and males, from subadults to adults;
  3. the ability to monitor and stop a GPS-tagged bear before it decides to re-enter Churchill after release, thereby preventing possible human-bear conflict; and
  4. the capability to monitor whether a released bear heads to another town, i.e., Arviat, Nunavut, and warn people ahead of time.

All of this information is helping to shape the conservation plan for the Western Hudson Bay polar bears, informing managers about the best place to release bears in the fall to keep them and people all along the coast safe.

So, even though collaring has been suspended for now there is still lots we can learn from and about polar bears this season. Thanks to technology, we will still be updating our Polar Bear Tracker throughout the fall as new ear tags go out (though none have yet been deployed as of the writing of this article), and we will keep you in the loop about when freeze-up happens (hopefully soon!).

A new set of GPS ear tags will go out the spring, and hopefully more collars will go out later in 2021. As always, stay tuned for our Tundra Connections webcasts to see live polar bear action from Tundra Buggy One and ask any questions you have. We will (virtually) see you there!

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