GBF Heads North to Polar Bear Country

November 1st, 2011

Polar Bear in Churchill by Colette Weintraub

Polar Bear in Churchill by Colette Weintraub

November is here, and the Great Bear Foundation is getting ready to embark on our annual pilgrimage to Churchill, Manitoba, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” We’ve led this trek for nearly thirty years now, providing a low-cost, low-impact opportunity for people of all walks of life to experience and learn about the polar bear in its natural habitat.

The Hudson Bay/James Bay polar bears are the only population in the world to spend a significant amount of time on land, and they represent the world’s southernmost population of polar bears. As such, they are also the world’s most accessible polar bears, offering unique opportunities for research, wildlife-viewing, and experiential education.

The bears spend most of the year on the sea ice, where they hunt for ringed seals, the staple of their diet. In mid-summer, the ice breaks up, and the Hudson Bay/James Bay polar bears come ashore for a few months of “walking hibernation” on the tundra. At this stage, their bodies slow down to conserve energy, and they enter a state very similar to that of hibernating grizzly bears, except that they are awake. This allows them to take advantage of opportunistic food sources, such as kelp, berries, and flightless geese.

During the late summer and early autumn months, the bears are dispersed across the landscape, but in late October and early November, the bears start to congregate at Cape Churchill. Early November brings the Wagnertuk, a cold north wind that can cause temperatures to plummet quickly. The Churchill River begins to freeze, and the ice forming at the mouth will help to form the first sea ice on Hudson Bay. The bears know this, so they aggregate by the hundreds at Cape Churchill, waiting for the sea ice to form again, so they can end their summer fast and return to the frozen bay to once again feed on ringed seals.

The Great Bear Foundation times our annual Arctic Ecology Field Course for the week leading up to the most likely time of freeze-up. That way, we take advantage of the largest aggregation of polar bears, and we are able to observe the bears easily along the road system surrounding the town of Churchill.

Our field course differs from most Churchill tours in that it is a unique educational experience, we strive to minimize our impact on the bears and their habitat, and we keep the cost as low as possible so we may offer this experience to people of all walks of life. The course is primarily taught by GBF President, Dr. Charles Jonkel, who established the first comprehensive field research of polar bears and their habitat for the Canadian Wildlife Service in the 1960s. Jonkel, in collaboration with colleagues, developed the first capture-and-handling procedures for polar bears, developed the first comprehensive database on polar bears, and played key roles in developing the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s polar bear specialist group and drafting and adopting the International Polar Bear Agreement, the first framework for international polar bear conservation, research, and management. Dr. Jonkel has devoted over 50 years of his life to studying, protecting, and teaching about bears and their habitats, and his work continues today.

The Arctic Ecology Field Course is open to the public and occurs early each November. Contact us for more information on this and other field courses.

Stay tuned for updates from polar bear country!

See our Archives for all past news and our Blog for recent news.

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