The WWF Arctic Global Polar Bear specialist, Geoff York, is on a field trip in Churchill on the Hudson Bay, observing and blogging about polar bears. Below is the fourth blog from our ‘eyes and ears on the tundra’. Read more blogs by Geoff York.
By Geoff York
A snowstorm at last and it looks like winter may ultimately be arriving. Flights are cancelled or delayed and it’s finally looking a lot more like the sub-arctic.
As sometimes happens when you are at the right place and at the right time, an opportunity arises that was unexpected. Manitoba Conservation regional biologist Daryl Hedman has long wanted to conduct a late autumn coastal survey of the Manitoba coast. Daryl has surveyed the coast in July and September for over 20 years, tracking when polar bears come off the ice, their general condition, and noting areas of importance for resting and denning. A survey of the late autumn, what he would call ice “in”, had never been conducted for the Manitoba coast. At the suggestion of Manitoba Conservation, WWF, Polar Bears International, and the York Factory, First Nations co-funded a full survey. As I happened to be experienced and in Churchill, Daryl asked me to join as one of the spotters – a chance of a lifetime.
The sudden, late arrival of an early winter storm delayed our departure by a day, but we were able to launch on Saturday afternoon for the northern leg between Churchill and Nunavut. The weather was clear and sunny as we departed to the north. We noted some grease ice and the very early signs of tidal flat ice forming in small patches, but the Bay was open water. Bears were few and far between on this leg, encountering only about 37 animals. Just south of the provincial border, we sighted four adult males sharing a very recent seal kill (3 of which are in the photo below). This began a series of such kill sightings over the next several days which ended with more questions than answers.
The following two days we would fly the eastern leg of coast to Ontario and all told encounter 397 polar bears. One snapshot in time with no comparative data. What did we learn? We saw bears in aggregations, but widely distributed along the coast to the east. We saw 16 seal kills in total and believe that many were harbour seals that had hauled out at high tide and became stranded – easy fodder for the few lucky polar bears who discovered these unwary prey. Prey that do not occur in anywhere near the abundance of ringed seals, nor at a time or in a place that will ultimately help this population. Though clearly, savvy individual polar bears will benefit in the short term.
We saw bears ranging from thin to average to above average condition. However we only saw roughly one-third of the suspected population, and only bears that were actively moving along the shoreline. The balance of the population, pregnant females and perhaps those who were less well off and still waiting in the willows were not observed. It will take several years of such repeated surveys to begin telling the stories of these bears along the Bay combined with the hard science we obtain from the capture and handling of a subset of these bears and information from local residents.
We also showed the tangible benefits that come from diverse partners working together towards a shared goal – better understanding of polar bears and their environment.