Polar Bears: Nine Years of Change

JoAnne had an eye-to-eye cub connection with a polar bear cub.

JoAnne had an eye-to-eye cub connection.

JoAnne has just returned from studying polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Living in Churchill.

In November 2001, I journeyed to Churchill for the first time to see polar bears. The freezing cold and strong winds from the north stung. I could not believe that an animal that had the same body temperature as me could live in these conditions. I soon saw how incredibly specialized polar bears are for this arctic home. They were all thick furred and very round with the warm insulating blubber from their main prey, ringed seals.

Males playfully spar

Males playfully spar

The fall is the thinnest time for these polar bears of western Hudson Bay, yet they still had enough energy to spare. What fun to watch the males sparring and greeting one another, such play and comedy. The family groups all had two cubs, and their play had such animation while the moms watched and rested, preparing for the ice and the hunt to come. Normally over the fall, the cold north winds help to form the ice along the coast, and then a slight shift from the south pushes the ice, and the first bears out to the bay are typically the large males. As the large males head to the ice, the sub-adult bears and family groups can safely come to the coast and ride the next ice out to hunting. This first year the ice came and the bears left to hunt before the middle of November.

Over the past nine years I have seen many changes in my weeks with these bears. Two years ago, after the shortest ice season on record, I saw very thin bears, very little play or sparring by the males, and families with only one cub and thin moms. The one family with 2 cubs had a very thin mom, and the cubs were perhaps the size they should have been at 6 months of age, not 10. It was at this time that many of us wondered how much longer this population would continue.

A large, healthy male

A large, healthy male

This year the summer ice stayed around longer than it has in many years past. I arrived in Churchill hearing stories of how fat the bears looked, many family groups had two healthy cubs, and that the males were energetic. All seemed set for a great season. We also felt that there would be an early freeze-up so the bears would have food soon. Early on we saw the normal freeze and wind shift that sent some bears out to the hunt the first week of November.

The bears wait for the ice to form.

The bears wait for the ice to form.

But then something changed. The wind from the south didn’t switch back to the north, and the temperatures barely dipped below freezing for the next weeks. Soon we were seeing perhaps as many as 100 bears in a day all mixing together along the coast. In traveling out to the Cape, we saw more bears than we had ever seen in that near 40 miles (64 kilometers) of coast line. All were waiting to get out to hunt and eat.

A cub and its mother run from a pursuing male.

Mother and cub run from a pursuing male.

Early this year we saw several seal kills in the dramatic low tides of the Hudson Bay. But once the ice formed up north, the seals could swim up to reach it, and we suspect they were no longer there for the bears to hunt from the tidal flats. But it was time to hunt, and unfortunately this was when the greatest danger came for the family groups. So often, folks ask about the danger adult male polar bears pose to cubs. I have always said that if it was such a danger surely we would see it in Churchill. We do know that it does happen, but have never quite understood why or how often it occurs. This year we did see it happen in Churchill. We know of four cubs killed and eaten by adult male bears (see post: Polar Bears: Tundra Heartbreak).

It is a hard truth. We must not condemn these males or the behavior. We must love them for what they truly are, not what we want them to be. Perhaps the hunting of cubs is nature’s way of providing food for its healthy and strong or a way of controlling numbers in a population that we know is facing great habitat loss. The truth is the Hudson Bay has lost over 22 percent of its ice in the last decades as well as 22% of the bears. This year the ice has not formed and the bears have no place to go.

Mother and cub sink on the weakened ice.

Mother and cub sink on the weakened ice.

I am incredibly lucky to experience these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. It is my responsibility to share that with you and to inspire you to make changes to save this arctic habitat. We know the ice is disappearing all over the north, we know that it is impacting our entire planet. Take the politics out of the equation: there is no scientific evidence to support that we as humans are not impacting the rate of global warming. In fact, the opposite is true. We must clean up after ourselves. All of Earth’s inhabitants will benefit from taking responsibility. It is the right thing to do.

A mother bear and her two healthy cubs.

A mother and her two healthy cubs.

As I return to our polar bears Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq, I am excited about their roles as ambassadors for the polar bears I have been living with on the Canadian tundra. There is nothing more inspiring than a connection with such an incredible animal. Our new guest experience wall will allow our guests such a connection. I am eager for the new interpretive area we will open next year. The information and stories will also inspire the changes so needed to protect our planet.
For now, I hope the arctic winds will come out of the north to freeze up the Hudson Bay and change the fate of the polar bears as soon as possible. I hope through inspiration the winds of our behavior changes will be strong, and we will change the fate of global warming. There is still time, and we can do it!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch the San Diego Zoo’s polar bears daily on Polar Cam.

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