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For Canada’s remote towns, living with polar bears is growing more risky




 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “For Canada’s remote towns, living with polar bears is growing more risky” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg in Churchill, Manitoba, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th November 2013 14.16 UTC

It was just a few days after a polar bear had mauled two people in the centre of town that the patrol officer pulled up by the school and scanned his binoculars along the rocky shoreline of Hudson Bay looking for any signs of a telltale white lump.

“There could be a bear, or several bears, right there hiding in the willows and you wouldn’t even know it,” said Bob Windsor, the officer for Manitoba Conservation. He had received three reported sightings in town that morning; there could be up to 20 on a typical November day.

Such is life in Churchill, a town with about as many polar bears as people.

But living with polar bears is growing more risky, for both species, in a future being written by climate change. The loss of sea ice has already caused a precipitous drop in the bear population around Hudson Bay, forcing bears off their platform for hunting seals – their main source of food.

The ice season in Hudson Bay has fallen by about one day each year over the past three decades, interrupting the polar bears’ prime feeding season in the spring and keeping them off the ice longer into the autumn and winter.

Scientists say the starving bears are resorting to risky and atypical behaviours, such as cannibalism, and are wandering far inland, where they come into closer proximity with people in the small communities across the north.

For Windsor, who has a bandolier of shotgun shells slung around the seat of his truck, meeting a bear is all in a day’s work. The officer, equipped with scare pistol armed with blanks, an array of firecrackers, an air horn and a paintball gun, spends his nights and days herding polar bears out of town and back on to the tundra.

“The bears that we deal with in our programme, we are teaching them to be scared of people,” Windsor says. “Every bear that we chase, maybe we are helping out somebody down the line that encounters a bear, because it recognises that that’s a person – and that is something to be scared of.”

But Windsor’s job is expected to grow more difficult with a warming Arctic. Local people in Churchill, and aboriginal hunters in the self-governing territory of Nunavut, report a rise in sightings of bears near communities in recent years.

Most encounters between the people of Churchill and the polar bears have been near misses – like the case of the woman who threw a bag of groceries at a bear to chase it away, and a man who distracted a bear from his two young children by swatting the animal with a dog leash. By the first week of November, there had been 168 such harmless incidents in Churchill this year. Most of those bears were sub-adult males. “Think of them as teenagers,” said Daryll Hedman of Manitoba Conservation. “They are the ones that seem to get themselves into trouble.”

Polar Bears in Canada

Polar bears playing in Hudson Bay. Photograph: Rex Features

About a dozen polar bears that had been caught in town and resisted officers’ efforts to chase them away were confined to a polar bear jail until they could be returned to the wild.

But in the pre-dawn hours of 1 November, an intruding polar bear ripped the ear of a young woman making her way home from a Halloween party and then pounced on a neighbour who came to her rescue, badly lacerating his head and torso.

 

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