What It's Like To Live In A Town That Needs Its Own Polar Bear Jail

Polar bear waiting for the ice to freeze near Churchill. Kt Miller/PBI
Josh Davis 06 Nov 2015, 22:32

For our final piece celebrating Polar Bear Week, we thought we’d turn our attention to the polar bear capital of the world: Churchill. A former fur trading post then turned military base on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay, Canada, the settlement is now one of the few towns in the world where the bears can be observed in the wild. Only accessible by train or plane, at the height of the season bears can often outnumber people.    

Every year, between October and November, the town becomes the epicenter of the polar bear migration around Hudson Bay when roughly a thousand bears descend on the community. During the winter, they spend their time hunting seals out on the ice of the Bay. As it the ice thaws during the summer, they float on the floes until they reach just south of Churchill, where they get off and start following the coast up to the town to start playing the waiting game.

Churchill is located on the shores of Hudson Bay, and home to around 800 people and 1,000 bears. Shawn/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

“The Bay starts to freeze here first, because of the fresh water from the river and because of the current,” explains BJ Kirschhoffer, director of field operations for Polar Bears International, to IFLScience. Kirschhoffer has spent a few months in Churchill every year since 2007, managing the media buggy out on the tundra that broadcasts live cams of the bears all over the world. “I don’t want to say that the bears 'know' that the ice freezes here first, but they’ve adapted.”

One of around one thousand bears which visit Churchill each year, on the outskirts of the town. Simon Gee

Around 800 people live permanently in Churchill and have learned to live with the bears, though there have been some near misses. A couple of years ago, a bear attacked two people on Halloween, mauling and lacerating their faces, and despite being shot multiple times, the bear was only driven off when a resident tried to hit it with their truck. To help limit any potential conflict with the animals, the town has a unique system called the Polar Bear Alert Program. “It’s almost like the police officers, but for polar bears,” says Kirschhoffer. The system seeks to resolve any conflict through deterrents and humane means.

The specially built bear borstal, which the rangers use to hold problem bears during the summer months. Emma/Flickr CC By 2.0

If a resident spots a bear, they call a hotline that immediately warns the polar bear wardens, who find the bear and then move it out of town. They do this through a mix of cracker shells fired from shotguns, which are effectively like fireworks, and trucks in order to get the bears out of harm’s way. If, however, a bear keeps coming back and is found to be a “problem” bear, then the wardens have another trick up their sleeve.

After catching the bear, they don’t simply ship them back out into the wilderness, but instead take them to a custom-built holding facility, which is effectively a “polar bear jail.” Here, they have air-conditioned cells where they keep the bears for the rest of the summer until the sea ice refreezes and they helicopter the animals back out onto the ice. 

The rangers in Churchill preparing a sedated bear to be airlifted out onto the sea ice. Emma/Flickr CC BY 2.0 

The Polar Bear Alert Program has been remarkably successful. Before its implementation in 1982, the only way to deal with bears roaming into town was to destroy them. Since then, however, the bear borstal and a myriad of other deterrent initiatives, like training local school kids on what to do if faced with the animals, have meant that killings only take place when human lives are in serious danger.

Air lifting one of the problem bears back out onto the sea ice. Simon Gee

But thanks to climate change, the outlook for the bears of Churchill is unfortunately not looking good. “When I started working here there were around 1,200 nesting female bears, and now we’re at just a little over 800, so we’re pretty close to a 30% decline,” Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta professor and a Polar Bear International researcher, told IFLScience. “By 2050 they’re basically saying that there is not enough ice in Hudson Bay to hold on to the bears.”

The bears often wander through town, where they're then encouraged to leave through humane means. SImon Gee

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