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Cooler bears
Jul 07, 2006

What’s a bear to do? 

The town’s dump, which Yogi Bear would have considered a handy summertime picnic basket, has been closed.

But, the dump was located near the Northern Manitoba community of Churchill, not Yellowstone National Park south of the border. And while it was open, polar bears needing a quick snack found the odours emitting from the burning garbage too irresistible. Unfortunately, the occasional munch on reheated leftover Kraft Dinner contributed to problem bears, which felt sometimes compelled to wander near or into Churchill, leading them to be tossed into the hoosegow.

While a jail term conjures up images of misery among humans, Churchill’s polar bears may have at their disposal the motherlode of creature comforts. Being permanently clothed in a white fur coat can’t be the best way to ride out summer heat waves, but a trip to the goal has solved this dilemma for bears tempted to take up residence in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”

Manitoba’s Conservation Department has announced that convicts in the town’s 23-bear jail — soon to be expanded by five more cells — will be getting some relief from summer temperatures that can sometimes reach 30°C in the northern community. Inmates will be treated to the soothing chill of air conditioning until they can be shipped far away from town or when autumn ice forms on Hudson Bay and they can again be released to feed on seals, their favourite all-natural meal. 

But, the level of air conditioning is relative — it won’t be a polar bear comfortable minus zero, but a drop to a more modest than outside temperature. Manitoba Conservation says a temperature of 20°C inside is a lot better than 30°C outside for the jailed bears.

The polar bear jail is a converted former military warehouse which opened in 1980. At the time, the provincial government realized it made a lot more sense to confine problem bears in a jail rather than shooting them. Dead bears just don’t make for good tourism. 

And, the bears of Churchill had by then become a major economic boon for the town of 1,000. Polar bears create jobs and profits in the accommodation, service and transportation industries. The only way for tourists to get to Churchill is via airplane or train. The town does have a port that operates during the ice-free summer months, but it’s primarily visited by ships loading prairie grain for export.

Tourism also led to the invention of one of the strangest polar bear viewing vehicles on the planet — the Tundra Buggy.  This unusual treaded vehicle is the best method for tourists to see bears as they wander about the tundra in the autumn, waiting for the ice to freeze.

After the sea ice melts in July, polar bears in northern Manitoba wander ashore and then inland. This is actually a time of near inactivity for the bears as they wait for ice to form again in Hudson Bay. It’s also the time when mama bears dig maternity inland dens and give birth to their cubs. Sows actually live inland and fast for up to eight months until their cubs are able to venture forth into the big, bad world. 

Other polar bears fast for about four months while waiting for the ice to form, but the journey inland sometimes brings a number of the world’s largest land carnivores into close proximity with people and peril. 

Yogi, though he calls himself smarter than the average bear, doesn’t have a monopoly on bear brains — polar bears are smart and some have reasoned out that people create garbage and garbage is food. The unfortunate aspect of this learned behaviour is that people aren’t overly willing to provide a free handout for the occasional bear happening to drop in for a visit.

The  Polar Bear Alert Program was started by the Manitoba government to handle problem bears. According to the Manitoba Conservation website, the propose of the program is twofold:

• To protect people and property from the dangers posed by the presence of polar bears.

• To ensure the conservation of polar bears and avoid undue harassment and killing of bears.

A control zone was established around Churchill — essentially a no-go zone for bears. If a bear should be tempted to visit the community, devices are used to try to scare it away, but if that doesn’t work, a live-trap is used to catch the bothersome bear and then it is tossed into jail. Bears posing an immediate threat are tranquilized with a dart gun and moved to the polar bear jail. 

The usual jail sentence is 30 days after which the paroled bears are sent packing via a helicopter ride to a remote location or onto the ice in Hudson Bay when the deep-freeze has set in. 

The only bears that are now shot are those that repeatedly refuse to accept the message that they aren’t wanted in town.

Local residents now say that the closing of the dump located 15 kilometres away from Churchill— garbage is now sent to a bear-proof warehouse closer to town — will result in more bears wandering into town and looking for handouts.

Manitoba Conservation felt the need to expand the jail because of the expanding numbers of bears wandering near Churchill in recent years. The provincial department says climate change and the early spring break-up of the ice is responsible for the profusion of bears. 

An early break-up means bears aren’t getting enough time on the ice to feed on seals. Subsequently, some bears are coming ashore in relatively poor condition. 

According to Manitoba Conservation, studies show that for each week that break-up occurs, the bears come ashore 10 kilograms lighter. And, the break-up has been happening at least three weeks earlier in recent years than it had occurred in the past.

As if a stint in jail wasn’t enough for Manitoba’s polar bears — they now have to worry about coming ashore with an empty tummy and no free lunch waiting for them in town.