Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Polar Bear Jail in Churchill

Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world in northern Manitoba is beefing up its unique polar bear jail. The provincially run facility is a transformed military warehouse with 23 holding cells with five more new cells coming, will soon offer air conditioning to some of its furry inmates.

"It's not air conditioning that we'd want to get the temperature down to zero or anything," said Shaun Bobier, a district supervisor with Manitoba's Conservation Department.

"If the air temperature outside is 30 degrees . . . if we could knock it down (inside) to 20 degrees, it will make the bear that much more comfortable."

Dozens of polar bears come near or into the town every summer and autumn after the ice on Hudson Bay breaks up, and the ones that can't be easily scared off are put behind bars at this facility. While they're not exactly jaded about living near the world's largest land carnivores, longtime residents have grown accustomed.

"I've been here for so long, I don't get excited about it," said Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, who has had close encounters with polar bears on a few occasions, including a run-in with one while he was driving his car a couple of years ago.

"You just stop and it will mosey along. Or what you try to do is, you'll honk the horn and you'll try to move it."

Bears that are locked up are normally released only when the ice returns, although if the jail gets crowded before then, some bears are flown by helicopter far away from town and released. The five extra cells should reduce the need for pricey helicopter rides, Bobier said.

The expansion of the jail may be timely, because climate change is expected to drive polar bears in western Hudson Bay near human settlements more often. Polar bears need a long winter so they can hunt seals on solid ice, and the ice in that part of Hudson Bay is not what it used to be.

"Over the last 30 years, the average date of breakup has come approximately three weeks earlier than it was," said Ian Stirling, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service who has published several studies on polar bears.

"Hungry predators . . . don't tend to lie down under a tree and just starve to death, so if they start to get hungry, they're going to look for an alternate food source.

"What we see is that as the breakup gets earlier, there are more and more bears seen in the vicinity of Churchill or in the settlements up the Nunavut coast."

Stirling has also warned the longer ice-free periods have resulted in lower average weights. If the trend continues, female polar bears may eventually no longer be able to carry cubs, he said.

Violent encounters with polar bears are rare, but some have resulted in injury or death. In 2004, a researcher east of Churchill was knocked to the ground by a polar bear and treated for minor injuries in hospital.

On the other side of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec, a 41-year-old woman kicked and hit a polar bear that was threatening her son last February. Lydia Angyiou managed to fight the bear long enough for another Inujivik resident to arrive with a rifle and shoot it. The last fatal polar bear attack in Churchill was in 1983, when a resident who scavenged packages of ground beef from a burned-out hotel ran into a bear.

The town takes special precautions every Halloween to ensure kids can trick-or-treat in safety. A dozen vehicles are driven around the town all evening while eight stationary vehicles are set up around the perimeter. Last Halloween, a polar bear that weighed between 270 and 315 kilograms got close to the town's northern boundary. It was tranquillized and brought to the polar bear jail.

Go to Free Spirit Gallery to see some nice Polar Bear Inuit Carvings.

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