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A Lot of Bad News for Bears

A warming trend keeps the animals from their winter ice habitat. Drawn by hunger, they head for a small town, where the cost is high.

November 28, 2002|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

CHURCHILL, Canada — It's been a busy year at the polar bear jail. Tubby's there again, and Whiskers is back for the fourth time.

Each fall, hundreds of polar bears migrate past this chilly hamlet, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can venture onto the sea ice to pounce on unsuspecting seals.

In good years, that means million of dollars for the town of Churchill, which mobilizes a small army of bus-size Tundra buggies to haul tourists for a few hours of viewing these fuzzy white Lords of the Arctic.

But in bad years, when the weather is off and the bears start ambling into town out of hunger and curiosity, Churchill can look more like a snowy version of "The Wild One" -- instead of bikers, it's lumbering white carnivores wandering the streets or growling behind bars as they wait their turn to be airlifted to a distant part of the tundra.

Lately, there have been a lot of bad years.

This summer, instead of disappearing into carpets of wildflowers that blanket the tundra, polar bears were pawing through the town dump, wandering near the airport runway and snoozing on front porches.

Revelers leaving the Seaport Hotel lounge at the town's busiest intersection have been repeatedly startled by the mammoth beasts lumbering out amid parked trucks, and kitchen workers at the Northern Lights Lodge have grown used to the sight of bears sniffing at kitchen exhaust vents.

"The bears are just coming all the time," said town council member Verna Flett, 44, a school counselor born and raised in Churchill. "The bears are out and about and unpredictable."

Residents and scientists alike blame this furry invasion on climate change, particularly a shift in the sea ice schedule rippling through the ecosystem. A long-term study of the bears here by Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Ian Stirling shows that a long-term warming trend since 1950 has changed their behavior and left them in poorer condition. They are skinnier, have fewer cubs and linger in unlikely places.

Similar changes are being seen across the Arctic. Delayed freezing of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's North Slope means more bears than usual are congregating on the coastline, said Scott L. Schliebe, who heads the polar bear program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Inuit hunters in the northernmost Canadian territory of Nunavut who are allowed to harvest a limited number of bears each year are skinning the thinnest animals seen in memory. "One 3-year-old bear had almost no fat on him," said Dinos Tikivik, a hunter from the Nunavut capital, Iqaluit. "We were surprised. Healthy polar bears have lots of nice white fat on their bodies."

But the toll is most obvious in Churchill -- a town of 1,000 at the southern extent of the Arctic, a point where the Churchill River empties into Hudson Bay.

The intersection of these waters has long attracted animals, from beluga whales to caribou to polar bears. The richness of wildlife is a point of pride for the people here. It's one reason they call their town the "The Polar Bear Capital of the World" -- and why they worry about the changing weather and the loitering bears.

"We are concerned," said Churchill mayor Mike Spence, the son of a fur trapper. "We don't want to be known as the mauling capital of the world."

Close Encounters

Most who live here can tell stories about close encounters of the bear kind. Some have nearly walked into bears while exiting the Northern Store. Others have driven into the animals during snowstorms. Home "redecoration" by truck-sized polar bears is not unheard of.

"Bear in cabin, it's a disaster," said longtime resident Mike Macri, 52. "They go through a window, renovate the place and go out through a wall."

The hardy denizens of this town -- tough enough to withstand howling prairie winds and winter temperatures that dip to 40 below -- are actually more charmed than afraid of their bears. The largest carnivores on land, the animals can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.

When a bear recently wandered through an open door at the members-only Royal Canadian Legion Hall, a manager calmly shouted: "You're not a member." The bear scrammed.

They have become such regulars at the town dump, the refuse pile is labeled on maps as the "Polar Bear Cafe." It is almost impossible to deter bears from feasting there. Even when trash is being burned, groups of bears, their coats blacked by soot, can be seen daintily picking their way through the orange flames.

On Halloween, the one night children are allowed to go out after dark, volunteers drive firetrucks, ambulances and pickup trucks around the edges of town to scare off the bears. People are advised not to dress as ghosts -- or anything big and white for that matter -- lest they be mistaken for a bear and shot.

The Hudson Bay bears are a unique bunch. Most polar bears spend their lives on or near Arctic waters north of Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland, where the ice remains much of the year, providing a constant supply of ringed seals.

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