When Polar Bears Break the Rules in Churchill, They Go to Bear Jail
In the Polar Bear Capital of the World, where encounters between animals and people are a fact of life, a 50-year-old program keeps both safe.
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When the sun goes down in Churchill, Manitoba, locals know to watch their backs. Thousands of tourists are advised to do the same. An alarm sounds at 10 p.m. every night alerting children out playing to return home.
It’s not other people they’re worried about—it’s the bears.
Hugging the western shore of Hudson Bay, the town lies directly in the path of the migratory route for the largest concentration of polar bears that come ashore to hunt for seals every fall. It’s the Polar Bear Capital of the World’s busiest time of year as tourists come from around the world to spot the bears from custom-built off-road buses that roll over the tundra.
Polar bears have been roaming the icy coast long before humans. But in 1942, the US Army Air Corps established a base in the town. Over the next few decades, the influx of new residents led to an increase in human-bear confrontations. After a polar bear killed a 19-year-old student in 1968, the provincial government stepped in and created what was initially called the Polar Bear Control Program; protocol then was to shoot problem bears. It was not uncommon for the death toll to reach 10 animals in a single year.
However, strategies shifted in 1978 when the government recognized the need to protect the wild predators. Now, it’s generally illegal to shoot a polar bear under Division 6 of the Manitoba Wildlife Act. Authorities erected florescent orange “Polar Bear Alert” signs in high-danger areas, such as the rocks behind the main town complex, and set up a 24-hour hotline for townspeople to report any bears that got too close for comfort.
“I can remember one time sitting at my dining room table having dinner and seeing a polar bear walk down the street in the evening,” says Penny Rawlings, who has lived in Churchill for 40 years and founded The Arctic Trading souvenir store with her late husband. “Even with the program, things can happen. They’re wild animals. They’re totally unpredictable. You don’t know where they’re going to show up.”
Even with the hotline, incidents still occur. On September 4, 2008, Rene Preteau was fixing windows at the back of the Churchill Northern Study Centre when two polar bear cubs appeared from around the corner. A moment later, and their mother appeared. She “hissed”, sat up on her hind legs, and swatted at him with paws the size of dinner plates, pinning him to the ground. “At the time, I thought I had no chance,” he says.
Luckily, one of the babies whined and the mother left Preteau to make his escape. He was taken to the hospital with torn leg muscles and needed more than a year of therapy to recover. The three bears were never found or captured. “I always tell people, if you yell and scream, there’s always a chance you’ll get out,” Preteau says.
Wildlife officials can’t predict every encounter, which leaves residents responsible for taking precautions to maintain their own safety. Rawlings says that during bear season, she’s constantly looking both ways and noting the places she can escape if she needs to. Authorities advise people to stay off the streets at night or walk around town in packs.
The measures seem to work: since the initial death in 1968, there has only been one recorded fatal bear encounter in Churchill. In 1983, a bear killed Thomas Mutanen as horrified passerby tried to distract it. A local guide shot the bear, but the victim later died.
“Best case scenario, bears will sneak through in the middle of the night,” said Jeff Chuchmuch, one of two conservation officers. “They’ll go on the outskirts of town, pass through and swim across the river, and go completely unnoticed. The only evidence that we know they’re there are their tracks in the sand or snow. Worst case scenario is we have a situation where we have a bear-human conflict, because the bears will always lose.”
Overall, the program has been a success; officials haven’t had to destroy a bear since 2013, when one mauled two people in town. The officers have divided Churchill into three areas. Zone 1 is within town limits, Zone 2 is the area immediately adjacent town, and Zone 3 is beyond that. When a call comes in from Zone 3, the two conservation officers dispatch to haze the bear and coax it northwest by shooting cracker shells, chasing it with ATVs, or sounding horns or sirens.
Closer to town, officers use seal meat to bait cylindrical traps with locking metal screens. Once captured, the bears are transported to the Polar Bear Holding Facility, sometimes colloquially called “polar bear jail.” Opened in 1982, the former military facility has 28 cinder block cells. It held its first bear in 1982. Around 2,500 bears have done time there so far.
Bears caught in town stay for up to 30 days to lessen their chance of returning, though families are relocated as soon as possible. Before the ice freezes, polar bears are tranquilized and carried by helicopter on a sling about 50 miles north across the river. After ice forms on Hudson Bay, the remaining bears in the facility are released by vehicle directly onto the ice to hunt.
On average, the hotline receives around 300 calls and officers handle 45 polar bears every year. Last year, there were only 22, but some years see more activity. The largely ice-free 2015 was the busiest year on record, with officers relocating a whopping 77 animals.
That season was Chuchmuch’s first, and he remembers polar bears wandering the coast from the beginning of July all the way through December. “I was still chasing bears around Christmastime,” he says.
Their activity—and hunger levels—depend wholly on weather conditions, or when the ice freezes. If there’s enough ice on the edge of the bay, the bears avoid town altogether and head straight for seal hunting grounds. On a normal year, bears don’t come ashore until the end of July or beginning of August. But while it varies from year to year, the danger of an encounter never completely goes away.
“Churchill is unique in that there’s no one time when you don’t have a chance of running into a polar bear,” Chuchmuch said.