Sunday, 16 November 2014

Churchill 2014: End of another adventure

Train 692 Ready to Depart from Churchill on 8th November

I write my hundredth post on this blog from home in a rural village in England. For all its problems, Churchill is so far removed from normal reality that travel there always refreshes the soul: it's closest to going to another planet I can imagine. Now, in mid November, the polar bears in Churchill are on the verge of stepping out on the ice for another winter of feeding; they are secure again for the time being. Meanwhile, I'm starting to plan my next bear-related adventure, which I hope might take me to Alaska's high Arctic next September. I leave you with a few more of my bear pictures from Canada's sub Arctic early this November. If you wish to use any of the photographs on this site, I would request a donation to the Great Bear Foundation: please leave a comment and I will contact you.

Churchill 2014 Contents
November 4th
November 5th
November 6th
November 7th
November 8th
Polar Bears and Climate Change

Churchill Polar Bears and Climate Change, 2014

For all the legitimate concerns about industrial tourism and the chaotic regulation of wildlife in remote communities, it’s important not to lose sight of the larger picture. Experts predict that the Arctic will be ice free by 2050, destroying the polar bear’s habitat. I attended a presentation in Churchill on 7th November by three leading climate scientists: Cecilia Bitz, Andy De Rocha and Steve Amstrup and feel strongly that I must share a summary of their findings.

  • There is a clear and strong relationship between temperature and ice extent.
  • Scientists are ‘stunned’ by the unprecedented rate of change since they started studying climate change.
  • There has been a 40% decrease in sea ice in the past 35 years.
  • In 2050, only a remnant of ice may be left.
  • As a result, by the end of the century 4/5 of ring seals may have disappeared.
  • In the 1980’s there were 130 ice free days per year in Hudson Bay.
  • Now there are 160 ice free days, so polar bears have already lost a month of feeding opportunity.

  • In 2007 Amstrup projected that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the middle of the century, and all of them by the end of the century.
  • Since this time, the picture has become even more pessimistic and the situation in the Arctic is deteriorating rapidly
  • The data on the loss of thickness of ice is even worse than the extent: the best estimate is that 70% has been lost over the past 40 years
  • Ice loss leads bears to spend more time on land, and hence increases human / bear conflict
  • Bears consume the blubber from seals and alternative land based food sources such as goose eggs cannot provide the fat they require. They are not carnivorous meat eaters.
  • Polar bears have become incredibly polluted as pollutants bond to fat molecules in their diet. This affects hormones and their immune system; cubs are taking in incredibly polluted milk.

The three scientists addressed climate change sceptics directly:
  • The scientific data on human caused climate change is ‘profoundly clear’.
  • Clearly the warming is unprecedented, and there is no chance another ice age would save us as have such a high concentration of CO2 in atmosphere
  • Natural cycles caused by changes in the orbit of the earth around the sun could only account for far smaller fluctuations than those seen recently
  • Variations in individual years weather and ice cover should not be allowed to obscure the overall trend.

  • Whilst the Churchill polar bear population has recovered in recent years, this is due to restrictions on hunting and the end of military presence in the area, and doesn’t alter the validity of long term population predictions.
  • It took between 1 to 6 million years for brown bears from Ireland to evolve into polar bears, and so it’s completely unrealistic to expect them to be able to adapt to human changes in 50 years. Natural oscillations take place over a far longer period and are smaller in magnitude.
  • Acidification of the ocean could be as much of a threat as warming, leading to a sea dominated by jellyfish as organisms are unable to create shells.
  • Hybrids resulting from polar bears coming to land to breed with grizzly bears are no more than a means of preserving small amounts of polar bear DNA; they resemble grizzlies in lifestyle.

What Can We do?
  • This is a human caused problem that we can fix.
  • In a 2010 paper in Nature, Amstrup concluded that we still have time to save the polar bear, but we need policy and business leaders to make decisions to afford us a sustainable future.
  • Climate change is a question of inter-generational fairness as cost of damage today will be paid in future generations.
  • The most important action is at the ballot box to elect policy leaders.
  • America has to take a lead as China is only prepared to take action if they can be reassured that they will not lose competitive advantage.
  • Technological innovation provides some grounds for hope in energy conservation, but geo-engineering to attempt to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is not likely to be feasible
  • Whilst we should be concerned about localised impact from fossil fuel extraction as the Arctic opens up for exploration, the real issue is the amount of CO2 that we are putting into the atmosphere.
  • Human over-population is also a significant concern.
  • Significant new scientific literature due to be released in the next month paints an unremittingly serious picture about climate and therefore the plight of polar bears.

In the midst of this gloom there is a glimmer of hope: as I returned to Europe last week, news broke of an historical agreement on limiting emissions by the United States and China. It's significant for the principle of reduction rather than the wholly inadequate magnitude, and may well be blocked by a Republican Congress in America. Yet, we have to hope that our politicians have enough foresight to at least mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Whether it's too late for polar bears is an open question.

Churchill Polar Bears, November 8th 2014

Depressingly, many areas of polar bear tourism rely on human food sources. Arviat, north of Churchill, is a traditional hunting community with an active garbage dump and game is stored in town. A controversial experiment is underway to bait bears with seal meat outside town as a diversionary tactic. The town isn’t yet established as a tourist destination, but it’s becoming more common for professional film crews to visit it. Meanwhile, in Alaska's high Arctic, Kaktovik’s profile is increasing as an area to observe polar bears feeding on whale carcasses dumped during the hunting season.

Churchill has seen some progress in management of human and bear interaction. Polar Bear Jail opened in 1980, where bears which have come into contact with people are held for unto 30 days without food before being transferred north by helicopter. Access to the town’s old dump, which became an uncontrolled tourist destination during 2011, has now been blocked off. Manitoba Conservation patrol the area around town, scaring off bears which wander into the area before they come into contact with people.

However, controversy remains around the charismatic local Brian Ladoon, who keeps sled dogs on his land adjacent to the coast. I found that this is one of the places where bear encounters were most common this year. Allegations have been made that they have been attracted to a human (or canine) food source. I found no evidence of the baiting of bears, but suggestions of a conflict of interest arise from his decision to charge visitors to view the bears. Ladoon claims that this provides a seasonal income to support his dogs on a non-profit basis, and it cannot be denied that life in the far north is tough economically as well as physically. Yet, feeing bears is illegal, and the temptation to manufacture a tourist attraction through unethical practices is strong. Some will feel that my desire to investigate further this year, after my first encounter in 2010, is in itself wrong, but I hope to draw greater attention to the situation. The welfare of his dogs has attracted criticism from PETA, and there's a description of their unnatural interaction with bears here.

On my visit, bears and dogs appeared largely indifferent to each other, and the two large male bears around his land were largely placid. It is clear that it has become a popular destination for visitors, with several tour buses and private individuals visiting, as well as a film crew. Manitoba Conservation has previously taken an interest, and last year removed a number of bears from Ladoon’s land to polar bear jail. I would suggest that despite their detractors, the tundra buggies represent a far preferable form of regulated tourism, though the funds from those operators return to Winnipeg rather than stay in the community. Both however may rely on some form of food conditioning of bears, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that bear viewing is rarely without impact to wildlife or ecosystems.

I am sharing these pictures in the hope that they might increase appreciation of the need to protect such magnificent creatures. Yet there is a dilemma: it's important that a passion for wildlife is encouraged so that people lobby for their protection, and press for action to be taken on climate change. Yet, tourism has an impact on the animals' welfare, and the capacity of such an area to absorb increasing demand as economic development makes travel more affordable is limited. Much though I love observing these animals, in an ideal world they would surely be better off without any tourism.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Churchill Polar Bears, November 7th 2014

This day, I took a trip on a Tundra Buggy, which travels off road on former military trails which cannot be negotiated by a normal vehicle. They are a controversial means of tourism, as the buggies can cause damage to the tundra, especially when operating in summer before the ground is frozen. It is a localised effect however, and in recent years the drivers appear to have become more disciplined in keeping on the trails. Of greater concern is the presence of two lodges where guests can stay during the autumn season. It’s unlikely be a coincidence that the highest probability of seeing bears is next to the lodges, where food is prepared. It’s also concerning that a bear approached our buggy whilst lunch was being consumed after one guest took food outside on the rear deck, which is prohibited. Polar bears' sense of smell is phenomenal, and the future for an animal who learns to associate humans with food is uncertain. However, tundra buggy permits are strictly limited, and they do at least contain the problem to a limited area, where tourists and operators are under supervision. The cost of $450 a day also limits demand, and pressure on the ecosystem.

A severe blizzard hit Churchill during the afternoon, and visibility was reduced to such an extent that the driver could barely navigate his way back. This put paid to bear sightings after 2pm. There are said to be many snowy owls this year in Churchill, due to peak of lemming cycle, but I didn’t see any, though I did spot Ptarmigan and a Gyr falcon from the buggy before the storm took hold fully.

Due to a bizarre misunderstanding, when I returned to my hotel in town during the blizzard, my rental vehicle and myself had been reported missing to the RCMP. An administrative mistake meant my Jeep had been expected back the previous day, and in the midst of such severe weather, a search had been unable to locate it. Meanwhile, there were fears for my safety, even though I was actually in the hands of The Tundra Buggy Company. The issue was quickly cleared up that evening, but it was a reminder that this is a hostile, sub-Arctic environment, where everyone has to look out for each other.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

Churchill Polar Bears, November 6th 2014

Mother and Two Cubs on the beach near to Bird Cove

Thursday brought clearer weather and I explored extensively around the Bird Cove area, which is the location used by Lazy Bear’s Tundra Buggies (they lack the permits of the other two operators to seek out bears in the prime viewing area).  I glimpsed a mother and two cubs on the rocks, who then moved onto beach area; it was magical to observe them, and finally the light was glorious for photography.

The Ithaca ship wreck

The photograph below shows the Miss Piggy plane wreck, a tourist attraction but in an area with few bears this year, as Manitoba conservation has made efforts to move them on beyond the airport. This is to reduce human bear conflicts following two incidents in town last season.

Miss Piggy

The Tundra near Bird Cove

Churchill Polar Bears, November 5th 2014

I woke up to find much colder weather, and was still acclimatising to driving in snow again, my home climate being far more temperate. As a result, my Jeep got stuck on the approach to Bird Cove. Yet luckily, within minutes I spotted Kelsey of the Polar Bear Alley blog who was guiding a documentary film crew and recognised me from last year's visit. He towed me out, an example of the co-operative nature of northern living where survival is challenging. It was another snowy day (which had come late to Churchill this season), with limited visibility. Despite extensive searching, I had only one bear sighting, but patience is crucial to wildlife viewing and I was far from discouraged. In such a severe climate, the hearty food of Gypsies bakery and restaurant, unlikely in such a remote location, was welcome once the light faded.

The bear I saw sheltering from the snow

A sled dog

Gypsies, a Churchill institution