Polar Bears: A Wild Study

A polar bear mother with her yearling cubs strolls in the wilds of Manitoba, Canada.

It’s hard for me to believe that this year is my 12th in Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, for polar bear season. Because of the unique water currents, geography, and ice formation, polar bears pass through this northern town every year on their way to hunting ringed seals after a few months of fasting when Hudson Bay is ice-free. The majority of time, visitors spend the days observing polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area beginning 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) from town. But today we are moving out to Wapusk National Park and Cape Churchill, another 15.5 miles away. Tundra Buggy Adventures is granted permits exclusively by Parks Canada to travel into this remote tundra habitat.

This travel requires hitching up all the Tundra Buggy lodge trailers to individual buggies and hauling them through tidal flats, snow drifts, and around large boulders. It’s a slow process, but along the way great views of the tundra and polar bear habitat can be seen. We are now just two hours into the drive and have already seen a fabulous gyrfalcon, fox prints, and polar bears: several subadult bears, one particularly large male, and a mom with two yearling cubs. I was extremely happy to see yearling cubs, as over the past three years I had not seen any older cubs, just cubs of the year, aka COY. Not seeing older cubs was unusual and perhaps indicates that cubs are not surviving past their first year.

Tundra buggies make their way to Wapusk National Park.

This year we are also seeing the ice forming a bit earlier than it has in the last few years. We have seen many bears already head out to begin hunting. Over the past decade, this would be a normal occurrence, but in the last few years the ice has not been formed enough for bears to get out and hunt for the winter until December. It is also good news, since most of the polar bears in Hudson Bay lost their hunting ice in July. Scientists studying this population estimate that the ice is disappearing a full three weeks earlier than normal for this region. The aerial survey from last year to evaluate the population of the Western Hudson Bay resulted in an estimated 1,000 polar bears, consistent with surveys from a few years ago. Unfortunately, average litter sizes were the lowest recorded, and yearlings and COY were proportionately fewer. This is possibly due to not only the earlier ice loss but also the later ice formation giving females less time to hunt and to provide for offspring.

Our destination tonight will be Cape Churchill, which has a great history of polar bear observation for both scientist and bear enthusiast. Typically this is where the biggest males stay, biding their time sparring while waiting for the ice. This area, too, is where, once the males have moved on, moms with cubs make their last walk to the coast and out to the ice. The opportunities to study polar bears and their behavior are hard to match anywhere else in the world.

We should reach the Cape in another eight hours. It will have been a very long day of travel. The reward will be tomorrow when we wake up in perhaps one of the most inspiring lands of ice and bears. I think how unbelievably blessed I have been for 12 seasons to be able to be a part of this. I can’t bear to think that this may all be disappearing quickly. The colleagues I travel with inspire me with knowledge that we can make a difference, the guests sharing this adventure inspire me with knowing there are some really great folks who are willing to make changes in their lives now to save this area by lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, and most importantly, I am inspired by the incredible polar bears that survive and thrive in this ice world.

I am so happy to see a mom and her two yearling cubs. It is their future that we hold in our hands, as well as the future of our own children, so that they, too, may be blessed to witness this amazing animal in this inspiring world of ice.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Quiet Season.

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