Zoo News

Oct 11, 2011

Day 2 (Monday, October 10, 2011)

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my Canadian friends!!!

We truly had a lot to be thankful for today!

We gathered in the lobby bright and early to catch our Calm Air flight to Churchill. People mentioned to me that we would be flying in a tiny turboprop plane, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had more leg room on this flight than the ones I took to Canada!

Of course, nothing could beat the view. As we flew closer to Churchill, we began to see the differences in the area’s topography. We flew over boreal forests only to be later met with the sight of hundreds of small ponds (formed by permafrost) that were surrounded by the Churchill River and the Hudson Bay.

It was a beautiful day—there was plenty of sunshine and temperatures were in the upper 40s. It’s windy and humid here, however, which results in a cold chill hanging in the air. At the airport, we were greeted by more PBI employees, who immediately gave us our blue Arctic Ambassador parkas…generously on loan from the Canada Goose company. We were finally ready to travel into the tundra!

Highlights of the day included a delicious lunch at the Tundra Inn (where employees came into work on their holiday just for us!), learning about the history of the Prince of Wales Fort (which was constructed in 1731 by the English to protect their fur trade), visiting the Polar Bear Holding Facility (D20 as it is called in old Army inventory sheets), and of course, finally boarding the Tundra Buggy!

Like me, you may have wondered what life in Churchill is like for its 850 (human) residents. How do people live in an area inhabited by polar bears?

Bob Windsor, a conservation officer for Manitoba Conservation, answered a lot of these questions at the Polar Bear Holding Facility. He is the manager of the area’s polar bear alert program, which was developed in the late 1970s. This program was designed with the following in mind: 1. the safety of the community’s human residents; 2. the safety of the bears; 3. preventing the bears from becoming conditioned to people; and 4. the safety of the conservation officers.

To prevent the bears from becoming conditioned to people, we were not allowed inside the facility. Officer Windsor informed us that just this morning, a sow and her cub were brought to the facility after being trapped just in front of the building. This time of year, traps are set out around the town to help keep bears from entering populated areas. Many methods are used to prevent human-animal conflict, including trapping, scare tactics (shooting screamers or cracker shells) and darting for relocation purposes. Bears are not kept in the holding facility longer than 30 days; mothers with cubs will only be in the facility for a few days. This is the time of year that polar bears migrate through the area as they wait for the ice to form on the Hudson Bay. Once the ice is formed, they are generally hunting and do not come into town as often. The purpose of holding bears during this time of year is to prevent them from becoming repeat “offenders” in the town. They are released close to the time of the formation of ice so they can continue their mission of making their way out into the Bay…and not to someone’s garbage. If bears are spotted in the area, residents are advised to call 675-BEAR to report its whereabouts.

Halloween is the most publicized night of the year for residents of Churchill. Approximately 12-13 units (made up of conservation officers, EMTS, firefighters, etc.) come together to help patrol the area for polar bears as children go trick-or-treating. A helicopter usually patrols the area for 30 minutes to scare bears away, and then other units are out on duty during the festivities. To date, no polar bears have been spotted on Halloween evening, though Officer Windsor said he did receive a call at midnight and 2:00 a.m. the next day. Therefore, the units’ efforts are necessary as there is always the potential threat that a polar bear can be waiting for someone just around the corner.

After we bid farewell to Officer Windsor, we made our way to the Tundra Buggy loading point. It was going to be a 1.5-hour ride to our Lodge, traveling 5-10 miles per hour over rough terrain.

What an AMAZING time we had as we bounced along, talked more about what we have learned and stopped to take photos of the beautiful scenery around us. In addition to a variety of birds (including snow buntings, lesser yellow legs, ptarmigans and tundra swans), we also saw a silver fox and…drumroll please…THREE polar bears!!!!

Let me just say that spotting a polar bear in an area surrounded by white rocks is NOT an easy task!

While it’s hard to judge the condition of a bear from a distance (especially when it is lying down), the bears seemed to look rather healthy. The last two bears we saw (who both appeared to be male) were even in very close proximity to our Tundra Buggy Lodge!

That first polar bear’s image, however, is still stuck in my mind. No one is exactly sure if the bear was a female or young male. Regardless, it is this bear that, for me, has set the stage for the rest of this trip. While the polar bear is known to be the area’s top predator, seeing this majestic animal sitting on the bare rocks hit home with me as I also recalled Bill Watkins’ earlier comments. The first snowfall should have already occurred. These polar bears have gone months without food –fasting during the summer months while there is no ice from which to hunt. Thirty years ago, polar bears were eating three weeks earlier in the fall because ice would already be taking over the Hudson Bay. Each delayed week amounts to 10 kg (or 22 pounds) of weight that the polar bear should be gaining. Therefore, if they are delayed three weeks, that amounts to approximately 66 pounds that they used to gain by this time of year. Instead, bears are getting skinner, and as a result, females sometimes aren’t able to sustain their cubs.

Through one glance, this beautiful bear put so much into perspective for me. More than ever, I’m ready to start making some changes to help secure this animal’s future.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us tomorrow!

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