Bear, Churchill, Climate Change, and Eco-Tourism

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
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Trip End Nov 18, 2006


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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Monday, November 27, 2006

This is the mishmash section where I try to tell you what I learned on this trip and some of my general impressions.

Some facts about polar bears:
1) They have black skin.
2) The hairs that make up their fur are hollow.
3) They are related to the brown bear, and are so close that the two species can interbreed. In contrast, black bears and brown or polar bears cannot interbreed.
4) Their livers are poisonous to us because of the high vitamin A content.
5) Their meat is infected with trichinae, the parasite that causes trichinosis and so can't be eaten raw.

I said in another part of the post that polar bears only eat for part of the year. That's only true for the populations that live where the ice isn't frozen all the time. Those bears can feed all year. Their preferred food is the Ring Seal.

The Churchill bears are the southernmost of the polar bears. The reason is that that particular spot on the Hudson Bay freezes sooner than the rest. It has to do with the shape of the land and the fresh water pouring in from the Churchill River (freshwater freezes at a higher temperature than salt water).

So, how did European people come to this part of the Bay to settle Churchill? Remember when I said the docents at the museums would just shut up so I could look at the exhibits? Well, now I'm wishing I'd paid better attention, because I don't really know. But I'll do my best. There were some fur traders, see. From the UK. And they formed the Hudson Bay Company. Then the French wanted a piece of the fur action, but the English (and Scots and whatever) said No Way and spent 40 years building Fort Prince of Wales, located just across the Churchill River from the current town of Churchill. Sometime after that, the American Revolution happened, and Ben Franklin got the French to help us out and that somehow involved mining the walls of Fort Prince of Wales and destroying it in like ten minutes.

Anyway, some European at some time or other decided that this location would be an ideal place for a seaport (the Hudson Bay is a huge inland sea). They built the rail line up to it. Then they built the port, which is used pretty much exclusively for the export of Canadian grain. It turns out to be a lot easier to train the grain up to the Bay and ship it from there to the Atlantic than it is to navigate the Great Lakes system. So the town of Churchill was born, right in the middle of polar bear migration territory.

Churchill has gone through a lot of changes in how it handles the presence of the bears. As you know, the latest iteration is to make the bears a tourist attraction. During the six to eight weeks of polar bear migration, thousands of people from all over the world descend on Churchill to see them. My feelings about this are mixed. On the good side, it means Churchill is trying to live with the bears. They kill very few of them now. It gives people an opportunity to see polar bears in the wild, and helps educate the world about the plight of these beasts. But it doesn't come without a cost. The thing is, I don't know what the cost is.

From the very first day on the buggy, watching the way the bears approached us with nose in the air, sniffing, I wondered about what they were learning. Here's a gigantic vehicle, stinking of diesel and roaring loudly, and inside of it are the smells of humans and the sounds of human conversation. A bear learns that approaching this thing is not dangerous. It learns not to be afraid of the smells and sounds of human civilization. And I do not think that is a good thing. The experience that really brought it home for me was on the second tundra buggy day watching that mother and her cubs make a run for the buggy hotel even though it was dangerous for her to take her cubs around the other bears. And later, when that other mother bear and her cub came over. The cub just watched everything its mother did, and imitated her. It was learning from her how to think about the buggies. I went back inside the vehicle (I'd been on the deck) and announced that there was no way the buggies weren't affecting the bears.

But what is the effect really? What's much more of a threat to them is global warming. The ice on the Bay is forming later and breaking up earlier. This gives the bears less and less time to eat. In the past, the ice would form late October, early November, and break up in late June or July. That's eight months the bears could eat. Then they'd fast for four months.

Now the ice is forming later in November (it hadn't formed by the 16th this year, when we left) and breaking up in June or even May. The bears are already losing more than a month of eating time, and having to fast that much longer. As climate change continues, is there going to come a point where the bears are just too damn hungry to wait around for the ice? Since they've been trained not to be afraid of human settlements (I do have to note that they are already very bold creatures--after all, they have no predators on land except for us), will they be even more brazen about trying to get food in town? Will they be more likely to eat people's dogs? And what will people do then?

Of course, the bear population may be gone before that happens because the most vulnerable bears are the mothers with their new cubs. A pregnant polar bear does not go out on the ice when it forms in November. She stays in her den and has her cubs around late December. They hang out in the den until about April. The last time she ate was June, so she's been fasting for nine months and during that time is suckling two or possibly three cubs. She's lost half her body weight. So, when she and the cubs head for the ice in April, she has to eat enough food to make up for the lost weight, and to give her enough fat so she can suckle her young through another summer. Back when the ice broke up in July, she had about three months of eating time. Now, when it breaks up in May and June, she has just one or two months.

The obvious result of this is that cubs and their mothers are going to be more likely to starve to death, meaning the population won't be replenished, so it will eventually die out. There's another interesting thing about polar bear reproduction that plays into this as well. When the bears mate, the fertilized egg does not immediately implant in the womb. By some mechanism I won't pretend to understand, the bear's body will only accept the egg if she is healthy enough to be able to survive the trauma of a nine month fast. As the bears have less and less time on the ice to eat, fewer females will be healthy enough to carry young.

It's all very bleak, but that's the kind of person I am--the glass isn't just half-empty, it's sprung a leak as well. Rupert, the bear guy, is holding out hope that humanity will come to its senses and stop the emissions of greenhouse gasses or find some other method of halting climate change. I don't have that hope.

So, given the dire situation for the bears, how bad is a little eco-tourism? I was definitely bothered by the interaction between the bears and the buggies. There's also the matter of the buggies tearing up the tundra. They mostly stick to existing roads built by the military in the 40's, but not always. One day, our driver couldn't get up a hill because of a snow drift, so he took a detour across the tundra. The tundra is so barren it's hard to get all worked up about some tire tracks on it, but here's another thing about global warming. There is a lot of methane gas trapped in the permafrost. As the temperature warms, the permafrost is melting, releasing the methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas.

There is at least one researcher studying the impact of the buggies on the bears. I don't think she's done yet, so there aren't any findings. There is an impact, but what is it? Is it really bad for the bears, or somewhat bad, or neutral, or even good? How does that weigh against the good things that people receive from this industry? Money for the town, the amazing experience for the tourists of being close to polar bears?

I think I'm rambling now. In short, I wasn't thrilled by what I saw of the buggies and the buggy hotels. But I think climate change is doing more to hurt the bears than the tourists are. And it is hard for me to announce we should eliminate the tundra buggies when I just had such a deep and meaningful experience.

But, part of what made my experience so special was that I was with the Churchill Northern Studies Center. I wasn't just thrown on a buggy and shown bears. I got to learn about bears, about the environment and land around Churchill, about the town itself, about global warming. That's what made the trip so rich. So if you decide you want to take this journey yourself, I highly recommend you do it with the CNSC (bad mattresses and all). Their website is: http://www.churchillscience.ca/.

So, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this blog and maybe learned some new stuff.

Michele
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Comments

asj
asj on

Great trip report
I really enjoyed reading your detailed (and entertaining!) report.

I'm planning to host a short summary of your report on http://www.top-adventure-tours.com/polar-bear-tours.html so that more people can learn from your experience - great tips!

Wilma

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