Tag Archives: Great Bear

Who’s Protecting The Polar Bears?

November 11, 2010

Bears and tracks in the snow

We woke up this morning to snow! Considering we’re in the Arctic, that shouldn’t be surprising nor cause for celebration, but the weather has been unseasonably warm for this time of year and that’s not ideal for the bears, so dropping temperatures and snow are a welcome relief.

The longer it takes for the ice to freeze, the longer the bears must wait to get the nourishment they need for the coming year. Earlier today, I was told that a beluga whale washed ashore this summer and that several bears fed off the whale, so they are in better shape than usual for this time of year. That said, others are not faring well.

Cub resting on mom

Depending on the length of time until the ice freezes, some bears won’t survive long enough to go out and hunt once the ice does freeze – the last time these bears ate was sometime early in the summer. This delayed freeze also necessitates that smaller bears, moms and cubs stay a safe distance away from large male bears whom pose a threat of potential cannibalism.

Hiding, trying to stay safe until the ice freezes

I’ve learned a lot during the past 2 days. Some of it fascinating, some of it disturbing, and much of it leaves me feeling conflicted.

 

 

 

Look at this picture (click thumbnail to enlarge):

Polar bears have become the icon for climate change issues and I understand why. If you think they’re “cute” or otherwise spectacular in pictures, that’s nothing compared to how exquisite they are in person.

Playful bears

Polar bears are strong, powerful, playful, tender, clever, and brave. At the same time, polar bears are exceptionally vulnerable. One “bad year” for polar bears can decrease their population significantly. As it stands, the polar bear population is on a steady decline, even during “good years.”  Some biologists estimate that, if things continue the way they’re going, we could have an ice-free Arctic within 40 years. In some Arctic regions, this could occur within the next 20 years.

Some effects of climate change that I’ve witnessed during my 3 visits to Churchill are:
• The ice is freezing later and later each season. This year, it’s already approximately 1 month later than the historical average for the ice to freeze, and it hasn’t frozen yet
• “Warm” temperatures and minimal snow on the ground in early November 2010
• An obvious decline in 2010 population of Arctic Fox due to lack of food source (lemmings) this year. We haven’t seen any Arctic Fox this year. People who have been here all season say they’ve seen very few Arctic Fox.
• Not as many bear sightings as previous years
• Bears with a lesser average weight than normal. Low body weight leads to population decline. i.e. Sows can’t get pregnant if they don’t weigh enough.

Being here in Churchill with the bears leaves me with the nagging question: Now that we’ve used polar bears to get people’s attention, who is protecting the bears?

More playful bears

The gift Churchill provides is that it offers an opportunity for people to witness polar bears in their natural habitat. This is important because when people observe the polar bears of Churchill, they have a tendency to talk about it. The messages and photos that reinforce the iconic use of the polar bear as a mascot for climate change are spread to mass consciousness as more and more people experience Churchill for themselves.

The power of these conversations and the sharing of information and experiences among friends, colleagues, families, and media is undeniable. I began this blog 3 years ago precisely so I could document these experiences and I’ve already been interviewed by journalists and by an author of a forthcoming book about polar bears.

There are also serious downfalls as a result of the success of polar bear tourism in Churchill. The main downfall is the impact the exploitation of this industry is having on the bears. During the course of this week alone I have witnessed:

• Photographers in vehicles chasing bears to various locations to obtain a desired photo. This is highly stressful to the bears and causes them to burn calories they need to be conserving until they can go out on the ice and hunt (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Private tour providers in vehicles physically “bumping” bears with cars

• Bears running toward staff vehicles of specific tour operators, signaling they’ve experienced some form of impact from people in these specific vehicles. They’re running up to the vehicles, not from them, which likely indicates they’ve received some reward (i.e. food) from people in these automobiles

•Photographers getting out of their cars and approaching bears within a few feet to get photos. You may think to yourself, “Well, if that idiot gets killed by a bear, that’s his own fault.” Yes, but if that idiot gets killed by a bear, then the bear also gets killed. So in the end, the bear still loses. (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Bears surrounded by cars, therefore unable to continue on their path (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Tundra buggy tracks leading off course, including one that appeared as if someone had done donuts in a buggy, on the tundra
• Tour operators with open food in close proximity of bears, so that the smell will lure the bears even closer to the vehicle/customers
• Tourists clapping and yelling at bears to “get their attention” or try to get them to come closer. This is happening on guided tours, with guides who should educate rather than tolerate this.
• Human food conditioning of bears (bears learning they can get food from people or as a result of people). i.e. enabling bears to eat “dog food” at a residence that also allows private tours on their property for published fees ranging from $500-$1,000 per person, per day
• Last year, we saw a photographer in a truck chase a bear into the water so that he could capture a picture of the bear swimming

The bear viewing industry in Churchill is having an obvious impact on the bears.

McNeil River Bears

Is it possible for people to be in close proximity of bears, without impact? There are definitely examples, such as the managed wildlife program at McNeil River, where if there is an impact, it’s absolutely imperceptible. I was fortunate enough to win the McNeil lottery this year and was able to visit the park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

Mom and Cubs at McNeil River

The program at McNeil River is highly managed, educates people thoroughly to ensure the bears do not experience any impact – positive/reward or negative/fear from visitors. You can only get into the program by winning a random lottery. 10 people are allowed into the park at a time, in 4-day sessions. In my opinion, McNeil River is the epitomizing example of peaceful co-existence between different species. I believe the keys to the success of this program are restricted access, education, consistency, and respect. I will write a separate story about McNeil River soon.

Unfortunately, in Churchill, it’s likely too late for a program like the one at McNeil to be effective. Churchill bears are already conditioned to the impact visitors have had on them over time. They associate people with food and fear – reward and punishment. The program at McNeil was established more than 30 years ago and has been in affect since the first day visitors were allowed in the park.

There are several things that should be done on a global level, as well as numerous things that can be done in Churchill to help protect the bears. There is certainly some legislation that could be instituted and enforced on a local level. However, Churchill is a very small town and there are a lot of politics involved within the community that make this a challenge. Tour operations should be better regulated, tour operators better informed. But, again – even the “best” tour groups in Churchill have illustrated some intentional negative impact on the bears. Plus, “polar bear tourism” is one of only 3 primary sources of revenue in the small town. Therefore, implementing anything that is perceived as a threat to the viability of the business, likely won’t pass. As a result, these operations are creating an additional threat to the viability of polar bears.

There are plenty of people focusing on the “problems” and what we “can’t do.” So what can we do?

I do not claim to be an expert on this – these are merely my recommendations based on what I’ve learned and my experiences in Churchill for the past 3 years.

If you have plans to or would like to visit Churchill:

  1. Consider traveling with either The Great Bear Foundation with Chuck Jonkel or Ursus International with Rupert Pilkington. A lot of people come to Churchill on their own and arrange tours within Churchill themselves. From the math I’ve done, there doesn’t seem to be a financial benefit to this. More important, if you travel with one of these 2 organized groups, you are participating in an actual field course that includes education and experiential learning. What does this mean? Well, instead of counting how many bears you saw, you’ll be learning about the behaviors of the bears you’ve witnessed, Arctic ecology, Inuit culture, and what you can do to help preserve Arctic ecology.
  2. Seek out a holistic education about the Arctic including: Arctic ecology, the people and communities, history, the Northwest Passage, sources of income, and of course, polar bears
  3. Integrate the knowledge you’ve acquired through your experiences in Churchill
  4. When in Churchill, support the following businesses:
    1. The Eskimo Museum – a wonderful Inuit museum with great gift shop. The money from sales here goes directly back into the community
    2. The Northern Store – the one and only (grocery/convenience) store in Churchill open year-round. They also provide a lot of jobs for locals
    3. Northern Images – retail arm of Canadian co-ops limited. Revenue from sales here goes back to co-op. Everyone in the community is a member of co-op and they receive their dividends just in time for Christmas
    4. Wapusk – owned by Churchill locals who are in town year-round. They also run a dog sled tour business
  5. Do not feed the bears nor try to lure them over with any kind of food
  6. Do not approach bears
  7. If you see behavior that is harmful to the animals (i.e. baiting bears with food, harassing bears with vehicles, speeding up or taking “short cuts” to see a bear by chasing after it on a tundra buggy, etc) or Arctic ecology (i.e. destroying the tundra by driving tundra buggies off established paths), DOCUMENT IT. Take pictures or video. You should try to report it to local authorities in Churchill, but don’t stop there. Take the story outside of Churchill. Global attention and support will likely be more effective in facilitating a positive change than keeping it local.
  8. Do NOT visit Brian Ladoon’s “sled dog” property
  9. If you do decide to go on a tundra buggy, please request JP as your guide on Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Adventures. I rode with JP 2 years in a row – he stays on the path, he’s a great interpreter (you’ll learn more about the bears), he doesn’t put the buggy in the way of the path a bear is walking, he ensures passengers are respectful and quiet around the bears, he stays away from bears that seem distressed. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other guides I’ve had. It’s worth waiting for JP’s availability or not going out on a tundra buggy at all

Tour operators want you to have a good time; they want you to see a lot of bears. You will pay a considerable amount of money for this experience and it’s important that it doesn’t happen at the expense of the well-being of polar bears. Come to Churchill to support them, not to participate in their demise.

The amount of negative impact this experience can have on the bears is up to you. If a tour operator is doing any of the following things, it is NOT ok:

  • Baiting bears to a location or vehicle with food or food smells (opening food containers near bears)
  • Allowing passengers to clap at and yell to the bears to try to “get their attention” or get them to come closer
  • Obstructing or intersecting the path/course a polar bear is walking
  • Chasing after polar bears
  • Getting out of the vehicle in close proximity to the bears
  • Tundra buggy drivers driving off the designated course and established paths

Not everyone will be able to see polar bears in Churchill, so here are some things you can do to help, no matter where you live:

  • Here are some simple, easy, things you can do to minimize your carbon footprint from Polar Bears International and Stop Global Warming
  • If you’re looking to support an organization that provides year-round education and implementation of programs that support and protect wildlife, I highly recommend Greatbear.org.
  • Learn as much as you can about current and pending legislation re: climate change, oil drilling, wildlife protection. Know who your state and local representatives are so you can reach out to them about these issues
  • Help me take this story global — we need international support to protect the bears.  I can be reached at: colette@mytraveltales.com

These guys are counting on US:


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Reuniting With The Polar Bears of Churchill (again)

The first polar bear I saw today

November 8, 2010

I’m sitting on the train to Churchill, heading to see the polar bears once again. This journey technically began at 4am Saturday morning (November 6). That said, the journey always begins before it technically begins.

I started my quest to see polar bears in their natural habitat three years ago and I’ve been going back to Churchill every year since. I almost didn’t go on the trip this year. I had taken time off to go see the grizzly bears at McNeil River in July and wasn’t sure about more time off work.

“Yeah, yeah. . . I know what you’re thinking, but you’re coming on this trip! You promised,” Shannon gently reminded me. Shannon works at The Great Bear Foundation and along with biologist, Chuck Jonkel, brings a small group of people to “the polar bear capitol of the world” every year.

My flight to Winnipeg was scheduled to leave at 6am, which meant heading to the airport at 4am Saturday. I was so proud of myself because, for once, I packed Thursday night, 32-hours before when I’d typically pack for a Saturday morning flight. Thinking I was ahead of the game was a mistake, however. I ended up having so much work to do that I stayed up through the night Friday until it was time to head to the airport Saturday morning.

“This trip is just a series of short naps,” I said to my friend, Heather. This is the first year a friend is coming to Churchill with me. I’ve been talking about it for 3 years and finally, one of my most adventurous friends decided it was time to join me.

We landed in Winnipeg around 2pm Saturday and headed straight to the hotel. After we dropped our gear off, we decided to go for a walk to find a good restaurant where we could have lunch. Now, I don’t want to offend anyone who lives in Winnipeg, but by the time we found a restaurant that looked like it might serve edible food, it was dinnertime.

After an exceptionally spicy Chinese meal at Hu’s on First, we made our way back to the hotel. By this point, we were exhausted, not only from walking around Winnipeg for several hours, but also from the lack of sleep the night before. After spending time in the hot tub and not having the attention span to wait for the Steam to turn on, we decided to make it an early night.  We were also well aware that it might be the last good night’s sleep we’d get for 9 nights.

“I’m setting my phone alarm for 9am,” I said to Heather, aware that this was the latest possible moment we could wake up, in order to be at the train station by 11am (and get breakfast, and get coffee). Alan and Leslie, a wonderful couple I met during my first visit to Churchill suggested we call them around 9am to make plans for breakfast before getting on the train.

I heard the phone ring during what felt like the middle of the night. I chose to ignore it, confident that my phone alarm would go off at the designated time. Heather also seemed to be choosing to ignore the phone, so I went back to sleep. However, underlying my sleep was a little voice, “you should see what time it is. Alan said we’d speak at 9am. Maybe it is 9.” So I looked at the clock.

“Oh no! Heather! Wake up! It’s 9:27!”

“What?! How did that happen??” she asked.

We started plotting how we were going to accomplish everything by 11am. The hotel stops serving breakfast at 10am. We were packed but we hadn’t showered. The nearest Starbucks was a 15-minute walk, the opposite direction of the train station.

“So, I guess we’re not going to shower,” Heather said, eliminating the thing we thought we could most live without, given the options.

Unwilling to accept that it was 9:30, I called down to the front desk. “What time is it?” I asked the receptionist. “It’s 8:32,” she replied.

“Why does the clock in our room say 9:32?” I asked.

“Because it’s daylight savings time. It changed in the middle of the night,” she explained. Note to people who work in the hotel industry: as guests are checking in, remind them of such details as time changes.

We were so relieved we had an extra hour, Heather and I got back into our beds and talked about all the things we had time to do now. “We can walk to Starbucks!” “We can buy water!” “We can shower!” “Breakfast is open for another hour and a half!” By the time we finished discussing all of our options, we only had time for breakfast and a shower.

“Would you like anything from Starbucks?” Alan texted me. This is one of the reasons why Alan and Leslie are among my favorites. Check. One more thing crossed off our list before embarking on a 2-day train ride.

Breakfast, by most people’s standards, was fairly mediocre. But, it was free, and things taste better when you don’t have to pay for them. As we learned to say following our all-day quest for good food in Winnipeg, “it was alright. . . for Winnipeg.” After breakfast, we made our way to the train station and met up with the rest of the group: Sam, Dan and Roxanne, Josette (French, from France, and living in British Columbia), Alan and Leslie of course, and Jeremy (from the UK).

I called Chuck to let him know that the entire group coming from Winnipeg was accounted for and ready to board the train. Chuck was leading the majority of the group, traveling by bus, from Missoula, Montana. It’s definitely worth doing that bus trip once in your life. After you’ve done it once, you can just take the train from Winnipeg. The group on the bus will join you on the train in Le Pas.

“Well, we drove through the night and then we went on an early morning hike,” Chuck said, filling me in on their experience. That’s why you want to do the bus trip one time – the early morning hike might have been nice, but riding on the bus through the night is another story.

We boarded the train in Winnipeg and immediately began playing games with our new friends. Some games were real games, like Scrabble Slam and MadGab. Other games were made up on the spot like, “Guess The Conductor’s Name.” Everybody played along without hesitation, which facilitated all of us bonding instantly.

Oh – another great thing that happened: we were greeted at the train by the same conductor I traveled with last year. I’m not going to tell you his name because if I do, then I can’t tell you all the cool things he did for us – don’t want him to get in trouble.

It’s 10:45am Monday.  We’ve been on the train almost 24 hours now, and many people are already referring to the Dining Car as “The Bar.” The group from Missoula joined us on the train around 3am. I opened my eyes to find Shannon, standing over me, laughing. . . or smiling loudly. Soon I saw Bob , Frank, and finally, Chuck.

You can read about Chuck in my Churchill year-one blog: here. What I find amazing is that, 3 years later, Chuck still has a bunch of new stories and information to share. This morning he told us all about the railroad between Winnipeg and Churchill. He talked about when the track was built, who owns each section, and shared insights about anticipated repairs. What kicked off the conversation, though, is what’s really. . . funny. . . or scary. I choose funny.

“You have a different engine on the train now than when you left Winnipeg,” Chuck said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, because they’ve had some derailments lately and it’s (the route) so far away from any repair services that they want to have the best-working equipment on the train before we head any further North,” he responded, as if this was not cause for concern.

Relieved to learn that our train now had a better chance of completing the trip to Churchill, we headed to the dining car (aka “the bar”) for breakfast. The food on the train is surprisingly good. I ordered the “daily special omelet,” with wheat toast. I couldn’t figure it out – the toast tasted phenomenal. Sure, I added peanut butter and jelly, but this was a level of deliciousness that exceeded PB & J. Finally I had an epiphany, “I know why the toast is so good – BUTTER!” Listen, I know they say butter isn’t good for you, which is why I haven’t tasted it in so long. But butter is really good for toast.

“How often do you use the word ‘oh’?” I just heard a husband ask his wife, referencing her journal entry. They’re part of the Missoula group so I don’t know their names yet. The man has a travel GPS unit that he has suction-cupped to the train window. “He likes to know where he is,” Shannon informed me. I don’t know exactly where we are right now, but here is where we’re headed:

Churchill

Churchill

When you’re on a train for 2 days, you have a lot of time to talk.  Eventually, you’ve caught up about all the important stuff and the conversation starts to get a little silly, i.e.:

“The serving size of the Coffee Crisp is way bigger than the serving size of the Milk Dud.” This was actually a fair response to a game we were playing – guessing how each of these candies ranked in terms of various components of their nutritional value: Fat, Calories, Sugar

“Coffee Crisp is most flammable but Milk Duds burn the longest. . .”

“My friend used to live in LA and one day she decided to go to the mountains in the Palisades for a hike, for some peace and quiet.  And then she turned around and saw Nick Nolte, which scared her into moving to Montana.”

Yes, it’s getting late.  And the train has run out of red wine. . .

Taking Action for Polar Bears

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

I woke up this morning to an email from MySpace – they’re featuring my blog on their Our Planet channel: http://www.myspace.com/ourplanet.  Many thanks to MySpace for sharing these stories and helping spread awareness about polar bears and how we can all help preserve the Arctic region.

Also, big thanks to Chuck (Dr. Jonkel), Shannon, Matt and everyone at The Great Bear Foundation for the amazing experience and sharing their wealth of knowledge.

The main reason I spent 8 days on planes, buses, and trains, traveling to the Arctic was to experience first-hand the affects of climate change on polar bears and Arctic ecology.  It seems awareness of climate change has increased and more and more people know that the survival of polar bears is threatened, but it can still feel like “a problem over there” — not part of our day to day consciousness.  I don’t believe this is malicious, it just isn’t top-of-mind for many people, most of the time.  I live in LA where it’s 73 degrees and beautiful almost every day of the year.  It’s hard to expect everyone in LA to think about ice caps melting and polar bears heading toward extinction, on a day to day basis.  People all over the world are consumed with their own survival, happiness, and daily responsibilities – global warming is not top-of-mind, even though they’re aware of it.

The thing to remember is that it’s all connected. The way we live, wherever we live, has an impact on the environment as a whole, which in turn has an impact on us. Dr. Jonkel (Chuck) reminded us that people are wasting time debating whether Global Warming is something people are causing or just “part of mother nature’s natural cycle.” He encouraged us to recognize that both points of view are valid – some of the climate change we see is mother nature “doing her thing” AND some of it is caused or accelerated by what we’re doing. All Chuck asked of us is that we help the part that we can control – the impact we have on the earth and the things we can do to minimize that.

Several groups have put together lists of simple steps to combat global warming in our everyday life. Stop Global Warming has a great list: http://www.stopglobalwarming.org/sgw_actionitems.asp

The NRDC is also doing work on climate change: http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/default.asp

Global Warming Solution is a Missoula, Montana based organization founded by a Great Bear alum. Their executive summary is really helpful:

http://www.globalwarmingsolution.org/pdf/Summary.pdf

Global Warming Initiatives, Inc is a really cool company that helps businesses to reduce their carbon footprint while at the same time saving money on energy efficiency:

http://www.gwi-nc.org/

The lists of simple steps are great in that they are easy to achieve and anybody can do things like switch to energy efficient light bulbs, etc. And if we get enough people to do these things, we can make a difference.

We can also support initiatives like the Western Climate Change Initiative:

http://www.westernclimateinitiative.org/

This is an alliance of seven western states and two canadian provinces working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We can pressure our schools, workplaces, and local and state governments to conduct greenhouse gas inventories, to determine how much impact they are having and how they can reduce that impact. It often saves money in the long run on energy costs.

The bumper sticker, “think globally, act locally” has never meant as much as it does today. The average meal travels 1,500 miles to our dinner plates, consuming fossil fuels for transport, processing, refrigeration, etc. One of the biggest changes we can make in our everyday lives is to buy locally, eat locally, and eat seasonally. By gardening or participating in CSA’s, we not only reduce the fossil fuels used to feed ourselves, but the plants we grow also help to produce clean air and to sequester carbon. Can or dry the extra food from your harvest, and you can eat your bounty year round. Grow squashes, potatoes, and other hardy vegetables that can grow late in the season and keep throughout the winter.

Chuck would say that one of the most important things we can do is to raise awareness of the polar regions. There are few people living up there, and their voices are rarely heard. Most people think of the north as a barren waste of ice. The more people learn about the Arctic, the more they will care about it. That’s the point of Chuck’s “Learning to Talk Arctic” lecture. As people become more familiar with the polar regions, they will care more.

I fell in love with polar bears during this trip.  I stood 30 feet away from them and watched in awe as they played, searched for alternative food sources, and walked across the ice with power and grace. I think about them every time I put gas in my car or ask a business to turn off the air conditioning when it’s cold outside (and inside). I think about the collective positive impact we can have by taking simple steps in our own lives and educating (and sometimes pressuring) business owners to make positive changes.  And then I do everything I can to help ensure the survival of polar bears and make a positive impact on the Earth.

Curious Bear

Curious Bear