Manitoba’s Polar Bear Alert Program: Bigger jail, busier emergency number

Polar bear detention center (c) Paulette Roberge/WWF Canada
Polar bear detention center (c) Paulette Roberge/WWF Canada
Bears roam the ice of Hudson Bay hunting ringed seals, coming ashore in July and eventually congregating on the tundra near Churchill in the fall, waiting for the first winter ice to form. The small community draws thousands of tourists in October and November, keen to observe this majestic carnivore ambling along the Bay’s coastal marshes and salt bogs.
Accelerating loss of sea ice and reduced hunting quotas have boosted bear numbers near the town. With such a density of bears and people, the government spends $250,000 annually to avert disaster.
To date this season, conservation officers have responded to over 130 calls. They start by lobbing cracker shells in front of the bears to scare them off (officers undergo training to ensure the shells don’t land behind the bears!). If that doesn’t work, live traps are set out with fresh seal meat as bait and the bears are brought to the world’s only holding facility about eight kilometers east of Churchill.. Over the years capacity has almost doubled to 28 bears, including cinder-block pens large enough for sows with cubs and some complete with air-conditioning for summer-time use.
This past winter was the shortest on record, filling the jail to near-capacity, notes Bob Windsor, Senior Natural Resources officer for Manitoba’s Churchill district. Some bears therefore have to be airlifted north but often make their way back, questioning the value of $1,500 hourly helicopter rates. When ice forms on the Bay, all inmates are released onto the ice.
The West Hudson Bay bear population stands at some 935 bears. The provincial government sets an annual harvest quota of 8 bears and these are strictly for accidental or self-defense causes.  A total of 258 bears were counted in the July “ice out” survey, an annual count of bears first coming off the ice from Churchill to the Ontario border. As the bears come ashore, polar bear alert staff see a spike in calls. Activity then picks up again in October and November.
Halloween proves a particularly challenging and busy evening, Windsor wryly notes, although there has never been an incident. Traps are proactively set around the perimeter of the town to ensure young trick or treaters aren’t unduly spooked.
Bear traps outside holding facility (c) Paulette Roberge/WWF Canada
An important boost to the province’s polar bear management program is the $31 million International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, based at the Assiniboine Park Zoo near Winnipeg, and scheduled for completion by 2013.
The facility will support environmental research and education, house an Arctic exhibit and provide a conservation centre for injured or problem polar bears. It will also serve as new headquarters for PBI and its Polar Bear Sustainability Alliance which includes WWF.
A new enclosure will be large enough for six bears, and feature underwater and above-ground viewing opportunities. Rescue facilities will hold up to six orphaned cubs that will be slowly acclimatized to live in captivity.
But finding homes for those cubs could prove problematic, concedes Bill Watkins, wildlife biologist with the government. Only a fraction of Canada’s accredited zoos meet Manitoba’s rigorous criteria, which include public education and enrichment programs.”Every bear that leaves Manitoba must provide us with a climate change education benefit,” he says.
Recipient zoos for Manitoba’s orphaned polar bears are also shrinking in number as the U.S. now bans their import, unless a compelling case can be made that a captive bear will somehow save the species. Unless they succeed at reproducing bears in captivity – also heavily regulated – U.S. zoos will see a sharp decline in polar bears.
Another initiative to keep bears in their natural habitat didn’t succeed. Manitoba tried to place orphan cubs with surrogate mothers in the wild, in conjunction with the U.K.-based Born Free animal welfare group. Mothers and biological cubs were sedated, as were the orphans, in the hope that Mum would wake up and welcome an addition to the family.
Bear trap (c) Paulette Roberge/WWF Canada