21 Feb 2012: Report

As Arctic Sea Ice Declines,
Polar Bear Patrol Gets Busy

Polar bears have long come ashore in Churchill, Manitoba, the self-styled ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World.’ But as summer sea ice steadily disappears in Hudson Bay, bears are being marooned on land for longer periods of time — and that is generating a lot of work for the Polar Bear Alert Team.

by ed struzik

Last Nov. 11, Jerry Cowley was fast asleep when he was wakened by the sound of someone violently banging on the front door of his bungalow in the Hudson Bay port town of Churchill, Manitoba. Thinking that it was his son coming home from a night at the bar, Cowley was going to scold him for losing his keys. Yet when he opened the door, Cowley was greeted not by his son, but by a large polar bear about to enter his living room.

“I told it to bug off!’” Cowley recalled the next day. “That’s the first time anyone has actually bugged off when I told them to.”

In the end, the bear did little damage to Cowley’s house. But he has since boarded up his porch, and his teenage daughter now sleeps in the attic. He’s also vowing never to answer the door again until he looks out the window to see who it is.

View gallery
Churchill Polar Bears

Getty Images
A tranquilized polar bear is removed from the polar bear “jail” outside of Churchill, Manitoba.
For decades, polar bears have been a fact of life in this so-called “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year, several hundred animals come ashore when the last of the sea ice melts in July, usually spending four months on land before the sea ice re-forms and the bears can return to the ice to hunt seals, their primary source of food. But swiftly melting Arctic summer sea ice, particularly in the past decade, is forcing an increasing number of bears to swim ashore earlier on the west coast of Hudson Bay and to remain for longer periods of time.

In Churchill, this means that conservation officers from Manitoba’s Polar Bear Alert Team are exceptionally busy, particularly in the fall, as I learned when I spent several days with them in November. The 2005 closing of the town dump, which had been attracting large numbers of polar bears, was supposed to diminish the number of bears loitering in and around Churchill. But sea ice loss has kept the bears coming in large numbers.

Last summer and fall were typical of the new reality in Churchill: With sea ice offshore melting in June — a month earlier than what was typical 30 years ago, when sea ice persisted well into the summer months — more than 300 of the region’s polar bears came early to the town and its environs. Stuck onshore for a longer period, the bears increasingly came into conflict with Churchill’s roughly 1,000 residents.

The population of Western Hudson Bay polar bears has declined from 1,200 in 1987 to roughly 900 today, as the bears lose body mass and produce fewer cubs. Scientists who study the bears are now wondering how long this population of animals will survive if it continues to spend more time on shore, where there is almost nothing to eat.

“The loss of polar bears in western Hudson Bay is a given, from all of the science on sea ice and polar bear ecology that I have seen and been involved in,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist with the University of
The residents of Churchill have a love/hate relationship with polar bears.
Alberta. “The main question now is when they will disappear from this part of the world. Our analyses suggest that the last bear in western Hudson Bay will die sometime within the next few decades.” Manitoba Conservation, the province’s wildlife agency, agrees that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, “global warming may some day produce conditions in Hudson Bay that could not support a population of polar bears.”

Derocher was in Churchill last November when so many polar bears had wandered into the town that the 28-cell holding facility used to house the bears until ice re-forms on Hudson Bay was already full. The polar bear “jail” is in a refurbished, air-conditioned former airport hangar on the outskirts of town, and when it fills up, the Polar Bear Alert Team must make room for more recent problem bears by tranquilizing and flying some of the inmates to areas far from town.

The residents of Churchill have a love/hate relationship with polar bears, which were originally attracted in large numbers to the town when the Canadian military abandoned its base in phases in the 1960s and ‘70s. (The presence of the military, some of whose members shot the bears, kept the bears away.) Today, the arrival of the bears draws more than 10,000 tourists a year. But when a polar bear becomes a nuisance, residents know by heart the number they can call. Last summer and fall, Manitoba conservation officer Bob Windsor and his colleagues were busy for months.

Churchill Canada Map
Wikimedia Commons/Yale e360
Churchill, on the west shore of Hudson Bay, where several hundred polar bears come ashore each summer.
On July 5, for example, a tall, skinny, 17-year-old male got in between a tourist taking pictures on the seashore and the safety of town. The bear was so aggressive that when Windsor drove up in his pick-up truck and fired a few blank shells, the animal turned on him before taking flight through several backyards.

In pursuit, Windsor heard the sound of someone screaming. Moments later, he found the bear standing in the middle of the road not far from a man who had been surprised — but unharmed — by the close encounter. This time the bear had no intention of taking flight when Windsor drove up hoping to escort the animal out of town, where he and his colleagues could safely tranquilize it.

“See that big dent in the hood of my truck,” Windsor told me as we conducted an early morning patrol in mid-November to make sure that children and adults could get to school and to work safely. “When I drove up to him the second time, he turned on me again, but I wasn’t able to back up fast enough. When he caught up with me, he reared up and stomped on the hood of the truck. I have never seen a bear act so aggressively.” In the end, the conservation officers had to shoot the bear.

Biologists and conservation officers like Windsor have done a good job over the past 30 years developing ways of detecting and deterring polar bears before it becomes necessary to tranquilize or kill them. In the early days, as many as 29 problem bears were killed in a season. But starting in 1981, the Polar Bear Alert Program began emphasizing conservation of bears, as well as protection of people and property. Remarkably, only one person has been killed by a bear since the program was launched.

The Polar Bear Alert Team’s actions, and the closing of the dump, were intended to reduce the number of human/bear confrontations, minimize damage to homes and businesses, and cut the number of bears that need to
Conservation officers say there is a correlation between the time bears spend on land and conflicts with humans.
be tranquilized or euthanized. Those actions have helped, but the steady disappearance of summer sea ice is complicating such efforts. Windsor and other conservation officers say there is a direct correlation between the time the bears spend on land and conflicts with humans. In 2009 — a warm year with later formation of sea ice — conservation officers documented 326 problems with polar bears in and around Churchill. In 2010, a cool year with more sea ice, the number of reported problems fell to 233.

Recognizing the tourism value of polar bears, the government of Manitoba has resisted proposals to allow sport and subsistence hunting, as both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories do. But many of the animals that live in the Churchill region in summer and fall migrate north into Nunavut Territory in winter, where the Inuit and guided hunters are free to shoot some of them.

Indeed, after slashing polar bear hunting quotas in 2007 out of concern for the declining number of polar bears in western Hudson Bay, the government of Nunavut has reversed course. It now claims, contrary to recent scientific studies, that western Hudson Bay polar bear populations are actually increasing, and Nunavut recently raised the annual quota of polar bear kills from eight to 21.

“In Nunavut, we have seen remarkable recovery of our polar bear populations since their historic lows in the 1970’s,” Daniel Shewchuk, then Nunavut’s environment minister, said in a news release last year, without releasing any details. The Inuit believe there are more bears than before because larger numbers of them are coming into villages and hunting camps. “The bears are not in trouble,” says Lois Suluk-Locke, a resident of the Nunavut town of Arviat. “There’s been so many it’s been scary.”

Scientists counter that this increase in sightings is tied to the delay in ice formation in Hudson Bay, which leads hungry bears to remain onshore in search of food. The bears have always migrated northward in autumn because sea ice used to form earlier up there. Now, the hungry bears are increasingly wandering into Inuit settlements, where local hunters store caribou, seals, and walruses on roofs and in sheds, scientists contend.

The University of Alberta’s Ian Stirling, arguably the world’s foremost expert on polar bears, says there is overwhelming evidence of the decline of polar bear populations in western Hudson Bay. Between 1980 and 2007, he and his colleagues found that pregnant females had lost, on average, more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds) in body mass. This resulted in smaller litters and a reduction in cub survival, leading to a steady drop in population.


For Hudson Bay Polar Bears,
The End is Already in Sight

Climate Change End Near For Hudson Bay Polar Bears
The polar bear has long been a symbol of the damage wrought by global warming, but biologist Andrew Derocher and his colleagues have calculated how long one southerly population can hold out. Their answer? No more than a few decades, as the bears’ decline closely tracks that of the Arctic’s disappearing sea ice.
“If the climate continues to warm as predicted, and the ice continues to break up at progressively earlier dates, it seems pretty clear that in a few more decades not many adult females will be capable of reproducing in western Hudson Bay, and any cubs that might be born will have difficultly surviving,” he says.

Last Friday, the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of the Interior seeking trade sanctions against Canada for violating conservation agreements on polar bears by allowing the continued hunting of the western Hudson Bay bears. As conditions deteriorate for polar bears there, some scientists say they can foresee a day when calls could arise to begin feeding the bears to keep them from going extinct.

“If the ice is gone, as is clearly predicted, feeding polar bears to sustain a semi-wild population is possible but unlikely to be a meaningful conservation measure for the longer term...,” says Derocher. “Feeding bears is fraught with lots of problems and it would have no real conservation value in the Churchill and western Hudson Bay region — because once the ice is gone, it’s not coming back any time soon.”

POSTED ON 21 Feb 2012 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Antarctica and the Arctic Europe 


"As conditions deteriorate for polar bears there, some scientists say they can foresee a day when calls could arise to begin feeding the bears to keep them from going extinct." And the crazies does not want us to hunt seals!

Posted by Ole Heinrich on 21 Feb 2012

We seriously need to come up with other options to slow down/halt the green house effect. We humans are ruining this planet, our health and well-being by being so inconsiderate to environment and other living creatures. We are going after all these material things and looking for happiness by accumulating more. We should be ashamed of ourselves for what we are doing and have done!

Posted by fatima ahmad on 23 Feb 2012

We must do everything we can to help sustain the life of the polar bear. They were here before man was and deserve to be treated with respect and decency.

Posted by Barbara Chichester on 23 Feb 2012

We need to take care of the polar bear, soon is going to be extinct from this planet, small steps
everybody can do to reduce gas emissions, maybe building more public transportation, to
protect them, and also have laws to protect the bear by being kill from poachers otherwise we won't
have bears in the ecosystem soon.

Posted by virginia esquer on 24 Feb 2012

Animals have brains but no understanding of knowledge, Humans have knowledge but no brains,
if they (Humans) did have brains they would not do all the horrible things that they do!!

Posted by Ruth Serra on 24 Feb 2012

People still can buy licences to hunt polar bears. It is such a shame to hunt animals whose days are numbered. But it brings money and money seems to be the only thing of interest for many.

Posted by on 26 Feb 2012

Yeah here we are in all our glory, "superior" to the nature.

It is our duty to sustain and protect what has been given for us. Instead we just exploit it. I agree with fatima ahmad! I am ashamed of the biggest part of humanity.

Posted by Max Günther on 27 Feb 2012

It's heartbreaking to know these animals are starving! Why aren't organizations like the Sierra Club and Oceana helping to alleviate their suffering? I'll gladly contribute for this worthy cause.

Posted by lisa lambert on 18 Sep 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for three decades. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about a potential uranium mining boom in Nunavut and about a controversial plan to kill wolves in Alberta.



Food Insecurity: Arctic Heat
Is Threatening Indigenous Life

Subsistence hunters in the Arctic have long taken to the sea ice to hunt seals, whales, and polar bears. But now, as the ice disappears and soaring temperatures alter the life cycles and abundance of their prey, a growing number of indigenous communities are facing food shortages.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

Oil Drilling in Arctic Ocean:
A Push into Uncharted Waters

As the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, experts say the harsh climate, icy seas, and lack of infrastructure means a sizeable oil spill would be very difficult to clean up and could cause extensive environmental damage.

Frustrated Tar Sands Industry
Looks for Arctic Export Route

With the Keystone XL and other pipeline projects running into stiff opposition, Alberta’s tar sands industry is facing growing pressure to find ways to get its oil to market. One option under consideration would be to ship the oil via an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.


MORE IN Reports

As Drought Grips South Africa,
A Conflict Over Water and Coal

by keith schneider
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.

Saving Amphibians: The Quest
To Protect Threatened Species

by jim robbins
The decline of the world’s amphibians continues, with causes ranging from fungal diseases to warmer and drier climates. Now, researchers are looking at ways to intervene with triage measures that could help save the most vulnerable populations.

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

by lisa palmer
As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.

Can Uber-Style Buses Help
Relieve India's Air Pollution?

by jason overdorf
India’s megacities have some the deadliest air and worst traffic congestion in the world. But Indian startups are now launching initiatives that link smart-phone apps and private shuttle buses and could help keep cars and other motorized vehicles off the roads.

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

by richard schiffman
The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

by virginia gewin
In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.

As World Warms, How Do We
Decide When a Plant is Native?

by janet marinelli
The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson's home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.

With New Tools, A Focus
On Urban Methane Leaks

by judith lewis mernit
Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.

Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

by jim robbins
Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.

As Electric Cars Stall, A Move
To Greener Trucks and Buses

by cheryl katz
Low gasoline prices and continuing performance issues have slowed the growth of electric car sales. But that has not stymied progress in electrifying larger vehicles, including garbage trucks, city buses, and medium-sized trucks used by freight giants like FedEx.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.