Polar bears roam the ice of Hudson Bay hunting seals. When the ice melts in July, the bears come ashore. They remain on land until the bay freezes over in late November. While on land the bears eat little and are quite inactive. As autumn approaches, they begin to move northward along the coast and congregate where the first winter ice forms. This annual movement brings many bears into the town of Churchill each year.
Polar bears are intelligent animals and learn behaviour essential for survival. Some behaviour associated with the town of Churchill (scavenging at the dump or in town) is not necessary to the bear's survival and can create a potentially dangerous, sometimes fatal, situation for both bears and people. To manage this people/bear mix, Manitoba Conservation operates the Polar Bear Alert Program, which has the following objectives:
The Polar Bear Alert Program is preventative in nature by minimizing the possibilities of unsafe or unexpected interactions between people and polar bears. To accomplish this, a control zone around the immediate Churchill townsite and former dump was established in which polar bears are not allowed. Conservation staff will also respond to requests made by the public to areas outside of the zone if a polar bear is considered to be a threat. A 24-hour hotline (675-2327 or 675-Bear) is available for people to report bears in the Churchill area.
When a bear enters the control zone, the Polar Bear Alert Team's first response is to try to move the bear out of the area, usually with scaring devices. If the bear cannot be encouraged to move or if not present when the team arrives, a live trap is set for the bear. In situations where the bear presents an immediate threat, the bear is immobilized with a dart gun on the site. When a bear is captured, it is moved into a specially built holding compound called the Polar Bear Holding Facility.
The polar bear holding facility holds problem bears captured during bear alert season. Five air conditioned cells are used during the summer and a heated holding cell is available for orphaned bear cubs. Physically containing the bears during bear alert season allows Manitoba Conservation officers to protect the public and maintain the welfare of the bears at the same time.
Although capturing and holding bears at the facility is frequently profiled in the media, Manitoba’s polar bear deterrent initiatives have many other components including developing public awareness, controlling attractants, hazing bears and using aversive conditioning.
The Polar Bear Alert Program begins with changing people’s behaviour, not aggressive handling of bears. The Manitoba program arrived through trial and error at the same main principles as the “Bear Smart” or “Bear Wise” programs in place now across North America to allow people to coexist with black bears.Manitoba Conservation and the town of Churchill have worked hard to educate the people of Churchill and visitors about polar bears and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations. This includes annual school classroom talks by Resource Officers, the publication and distribution of pamphlets, other printed materials and videos, and special events such as the open house held every summer at the polar bear holding facility. Additionally, numerous signs have been posted to deter people from entering areas deemed especially hazardous.
In most years, more bears will be captured than the polar bear facility will hold. When this happens, some of the bears are transported northwest, away from Churchill, by helicopter. They rarely return to Churchill in the same year. When Hudson Bay freezes, all bears in the polar bear facility are released onto the ice.
The number of polar bears captured in the program is related to weather, ice conditions in the fall and the distribution of bears along the coast. Prior to 2005, the numbers of bears caught in Churchill had been increasing, due to warmer falls or (in 1999) an early spring. The number of bears caught in Churchill has gone down since the closure of the dump in 2005.
The major threat to the western Hudson Bay polar bear population is global warming. The increase in temperature leads to changes in the sea ice, which is the preferred habitat of polar bears. It is on the ice that bears are able to kill seals. Changes in the ice which affect the seal population or the bear's ability to kill seals would adversely affect the bear population.