The Town Where Half Your Neighbors Are Polar Bears

From a Wall Street Journal story by Angela Owens headlined “Welcome to the Tiny Town Where Half Your Neighbors Are Polar Bears”:

CHURCHILL, Manitoba — On a cold morning in this remote Canadian village, a series of loud bangs disturb the quiet hum of residents beginning their day.

A polar bear lumbering through town has been spotted near the cemetery.

Conservation officers, armed with cracker shells, also known as scare cartridges, arrive to push the bear away from residences. The sound of the nonlethal shells fired from a shotgun is enough to deter the bear from going farther into town for breakfast.

“It was a busy morning,” says Ian Van Nest, district supervisor for the Polar Bear Alert Program, who responded to the call at 7:30 a.m. “We hazed it with cracker shells, and he made his way over towards the bay.”

For Churchill, the morning’s events weren’t that unusual. The tiny town is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World because in autumn, some of the largest carnivores on land loiter around while they wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze. What does Churchill have to bear with? It becomes home to roughly 900 humans and 850 polar bears—and researchers say the bears are now around longer.

A banner at the airport introduces visitors to polar bear safety. Polar bear crossing signs dot the roads. There is a polar-bear jail for furry tourists who overstep their welcome.

“Other communities have other problems, maybe it’s foxes or skunks, or raccoons,” says Michael Spence, a lifelong resident who has been mayor since 1995. “But being a polar bear destination, it’s unique and in some ways it’s rewarding, you get a bit of pride.”

These polar bears, known as the Western Hudson Bay population, tend to gather in the region in October and November. Freshwater from the Churchill River meets the Hudson Bay and develops sea ice earlier than other areas. The bears, eager to venture out onto the ice, which they depend on to hunt their prey, bide their time along the shore and in the surrounding tundra while waiting for the freeze.

The Polar Bear Alert Program responds to about 200 calls a year, Mr. Van Nest says. Residents and visitors are encouraged to call a hotline when one of the bears—which can weigh over 1,000 pounds and stand 10 feet tall on their hind legs—is close to town.

“When I first experienced bears, there was no polar bear management,” says Mayor Spence.

Dave Daley, 59, says that when he was a child there was little conservation effort for the bears. A member of the Métis people, he says indigenous culture instilled in him a respect for animals. “I’ve seen polar bears with different personalities over the years,” he says. “They definitely are a very soulful animal.”

No roads lead into the town, which is over 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg. Churchill can be reached by plane or train. It embraces its status as a rest stop in the animal kingdom and does a brisk bear-related business, with shops selling polar bear mugs, T-shirts, jewelry, and stuffed animals.

Yet, the town is often left to develop its own methods to minimize conflict between the people and bears that call Churchill home.

“You’re on the last frontier and on the edge of the Arctic,” says Mr. Daley.

For bears that don’t respond to less-intrusive hazing methods, there is a backup plan: Large metal tubes with a trap door, baited with seal meat, can be used to detain a roving bear. An old aircraft hangar, left behind from the town’s days as a military base, serves as a holding facility, informally known as the polar bear jail.

On a recent morning, it held three bears, but has capacity for 28. The bears, who naturally go long periods without eating, are given only snow and water until they are released, in hopes they will remember the lack of room service and avoid returning.

In autumn, the bears are operating on fat reserves from the previous winter and trying to conserve energy. They’re often spotted napping.

“A lot of what you’ll see this time of year is sleepy bear walking. There’s nowhere to be in a hurry,” says BJ Kirschhoffer, director of conservation technology at the nonprofit Polar Bears International.

One marshmallow-colored bear, walking along the shore in late October, eyed a seal bobbing its head above the water. The bear sauntered a few steps forward and leapt into the water. But without ice, the seal had the advantage, and easily escaped.

The bears spend the harshest months of winter traversing the frozen Hudson Bay. The ice provides the best hunting ground for their preferred meal, ringed seals.

“Once the ice is formed, the bears are gone” from the town, says Mr. Van Nest, of the bear alert team. “That’s when we can go and put our feet up and relax. But until then it’s a go, go, go kind of atmosphere.”

However, the sea ice is freezing later and melting earlier. “The difference between now and 30 years ago is that the season when the ice is gone is a lot longer,” says Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International.

“If you have to add another three or four weeks of days that you’re not feeding, that’s a lot of body mass to lose,” he says. “They’re gonna go looking around, see if they can find some food.”

At 10 p.m., a siren echoes through town, which Mr. Van Nest says serves as a reminder to be alert. Walking alone at night is strongly discouraged. “And check around corners,” he says.

Sylvia Beardy, who has lived in town for 30 years, recalls seeing a bear in her neighborhood at 4 o’clock in the morning. “I opened the window and saw it coming around the corner, and I closed my curtains really fast.”

Despite the unease of seeing a polar bear outside her apartment, Ms. Beardy says she enjoys spotting them from a distance. “They’re really beautiful.”

Speak Your Mind