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A lot of bad news for bears

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[This story appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 28, 2002]

Churchill, Canada

It's been a busy year at the polar bear jail. Tubby's there again, and Whiskers is back for the fourth time.

Each fall, hundreds of polar bears migrate past this chilly hamlet, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can venture onto the sea ice to pounce on unsuspecting seals.

In good years, that means million of dollars for the town of Churchill, which mobilizes a small army of bus-size Tundra buggies to haul tourists for a few hours of viewing these fuzzy white Lords of the Arctic.

But in bad years, when the weather is off and the bears start ambling into town out of hunger and curiosity, Churchill can look more like a snowy version of "The Wild One" -- instead of bikers, it's lumbering white carnivores wandering the streets or growling behind bars as they wait their turn to be airlifted to a distant part of the tundra.

Lately, there have been a lot of bad years.

This summer, instead of disappearing into carpets of wildflowers that blanket the tundra, polar bears were pawing through the town dump, wandering near the airport runway and snoozing on front porches.

Revelers leaving the Seaport Hotel lounge at the town's busiest intersection have been repeatedly startled by the mammoth beasts lumbering out amid parked trucks, and kitchen workers at the Northern Lights Lodge have grown used to the sight of bears sniffing at kitchen exhaust vents.

"The bears are just coming all the time," said town council member Verna Flett, 44, a school counselor born and raised in Churchill. "The bears are out and about and unpredictable."

Residents and scientists alike blame this furry invasion on climate change, particularly a shift in the sea ice schedule rippling through the ecosystem. A long-term study of the bears here by Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Ian Stirling shows that a long-term warming trend since 1950 has changed their behavior and left them in poorer condition. They are skinnier, have fewer cubs and linger in unlikely places.

Similar changes are being seen across the Arctic. Delayed freezing of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's North Slope means more bears than usual are congregating on the coastline, said Scott L. Schliebe, who heads the polar bear program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Inuit hunters in the northernmost Canadian territory of Nunavut who are allowed to harvest a limited number of bears each year are skinning the thinnest animals seen in memory. "One 3-year-old bear had almost no fat on him," said Dinos Tikivik, a hunter from the Nunavut capital, Iqaluit. "We were surprised. Healthy polar bears have lots of nice white fat on their bodies."

But the toll is most obvious in Churchill -- a town of 1,000 at the southern extent of the Arctic, a point where the Churchill River empties into Hudson Bay.

The intersection of these waters has long attracted animals, from beluga whales to caribou to polar bears. The richness of wildlife is a point of pride for the people here. It's one reason they call their town the "The Polar Bear Capital of the World" -- and why they worry about the changing weather and the loitering bears.

"We are concerned," said Churchill mayor Mike Spence, the son of a fur trapper. "We don't want to be known as the mauling capital of the world."

Close Encounters

Most who live here can tell stories about close encounters of the bear kind. Some have nearly walked into bears while exiting the Northern Store. Others have driven into the animals during snowstorms. Home "redecoration" by truck-sized polar bears is not unheard of.

"Bear in cabin, it's a disaster," said longtime resident Mike Macri, 52. "They go through a window, renovate the place and go out through a wall."

The hardy denizens of this town -- tough enough to withstand howling prairie winds and winter temperatures that dip to 40 below -- are actually more charmed than afraid of their bears. The largest carnivores on land, the animals can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.

When a bear recently wandered through an open door at the members-only Royal Canadian Legion Hall, a manager calmly shouted: "You're not a member." The bear scrammed.

They have become such regulars at the town dump, the refuse pile is labeled on maps as the "Polar Bear Cafe." It is almost impossible to deter bears from feasting there. Even when trash is being burned, groups of bears, their coats blacked by soot, can be seen daintily picking their way through the orange flames.

On Halloween, the one night children are allowed to go out after dark, volunteers drive firetrucks, ambulances and pickup trucks around the edges of town to scare off the bears. People are advised not to dress as ghosts -- or anything big and white for that matter -- lest they be mistaken for a bear and shot.

The Hudson Bay bears are a unique bunch. Most polar bears spend their lives on or near Arctic waters north of Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland, where the ice remains much of the year, providing a constant supply of ringed seals.

But the Hudson Bay bears inhabit an area hundreds of miles south, at about the same latitude as Aberdeen, Scotland. They survive because the surface of Hudson Bay is frozen from mid-October through mid-April. During these months, the bears live like their northern cousins that don't face a dramatic loss of ice each summer: They hunt seals at breathing holes, pounce on seal pup lairs, sleep on ice floes and swim in frigid waters.

In late spring, when the ice disappears, the bears come ashore. While they don't hibernate, their metabolism slows markedly. They fast for six months and lose hundreds of pounds, enough that their thick, yellowish pelts hang loosely off their broad shoulders and hips.

Survival of Fattest

Long winters produce fat polar bears. In 1992, the year after Mt. Pinatubo's eruption slightly cooled the planet, an extra-long ice season resulted in the fattest bears Hudson Bay researchers had seen for years. They are still called the Pinatubo bears.

Short winters, however, are a disaster. In this struggle for life -- a survival of the fattest -- bears that have not packed on enough weight during winter can starve to death by fall.

Biologist Stirling, who has studied polar bears for more than two decades, reported in 1999 that a 50-year warming trend caused spring ice to break up earlier.

Bears have had less time to fatten up. Polar bear sows have had less time to pack on the roughly 450 extra pounds they need to sustain pregnancy and provide fat-rich milk to their cubs. Stirling's work showed bears missing just two weeks of crucial spring feeding can lose 8% of their weight.

Those that survive the summer are at their most ravenous -- and dangerous. Starving bears often lose their natural wariness and wander into town.

Remarkably, only two people have been killed by polar bears in Churchill in recent decades. The first was a native Inuk teenager mauled in 1968 after harassing a bear. Then in 1983, an Inuk resident was killed after he scavenged through the ruins of a burned-down hotel and stuffed his pockets with unspoiled meat from a freezer.

The low number of deaths is a tribute to both the discerning palates of bears, which seem to prefer fat seals to bony people, and to the town's 32-year-old "Bear Alert" program. Residents can call 675-BEAR, day or night, to report errant bears. Manitoba Conservation officer Richard Romaniuk and his crew will shoot the bear with a tranquilizing dart and haul it to jail.

It is not uncommon for the men to capture four bears in a day. To keep the animals from associating humans with food, they are not fed in jail. The bears are kept behind bars until the bay freezes and they can start hunting. If the 21 cinder-block cells fill up, as they already have twice this year, the bears are airlifted by helicopter and taken north.

Leg snares and traps baited with seal blubber are set around the town's perimeter. Other interlopers are caught on the tundra outside of town.

"The program has two objectives. The first is to protect the people from the bears. The second is to protect the bears from the people," Romaniuk said. "The last thing we want to do is put a polar bear down."

Hunting of bears in Manitoba is not allowed. Killing one in self-defense is legal but rarely occurs, Romaniuk said.

The town has good reason to keep them alive. Rough estimates indicate the province of Manitoba earns well over $300 million each year from bear tourism, a good share of that going to businesses in town.

"Bears are the backbone of our economy," said town manager Darren Ottaway.

While Ottaway is concerned about an abundance of hungry bears coming to town in the short term, he is even more worried that global warming may mean no bears here at all one day.

"If the floor was to fall out of the bear industry, we'd need to diversify to survive," he said.

For three weeks during bear season, sleepy Churchill blooms as about 15,000 tourists stream through town hoping to get close-up views of the animals from caravans of heated "Tundra Buggies." Several chartered jets unload bear-gazers at the Churchill airport each day. Hotels and restaurants shuttered during the bleak winter fill to capacity. Gift shops do a brisk business selling polar bear puppets, earrings and pajamas.

"Everything just goes crazy," said town councilor Flett.

During the eight years he has been mayor, Spence has already seen the effects of climate change on the bear industry. He said the season used to end by early November, when the bay froze and the bears spread out across Hudson Bay, out of the reach of tourists. Now, the bay sometimes stays open until late December.

"If warming continues as projected, it is likely that in 30 to 50 years there may not be many bears in Hudson Bay," Stirling said.

'Local Extinction'

Polar bears are not currently an endangered species. Their total population is estimated to be from 22,000 to 27,000. But the 1,200 Hudson Bay bears could face what scientists call a "local extinction" -- they could produce fewer cubs and eventually die out. The bears won't travel to colder places because those areas are occupied by bears likely to defend their territory.

Officials and business leaders in Churchill have already begun planning for warmer and possibly bear-free days.

Ottaway is pushing beluga whale watching, wildflower photography and bird-watching as summer attractions. And he is delighted that Japanese tourists are willing to brave the bone-chilling cold of winter to view the Aurora Borealis.

Some, according to the Japan Travel Bureau, are interested in conceiving a child under the lights to ensure the child a fortunate life. A few sites have plexiglass domes for cozy indoor viewing.

"It's super news for us," Ottaway said of the potential Japanese tourist boom.

Warmer weather, Ottaway said, could also extend the shipping season on Hudson Bay and attract more filmmakers. The science-fiction classic "Iceman" was filmed nearby as well as an upcoming film, "The Snow Walker."

"When people talk about climate change, you have to look at the benefits too," Ottaway said.

But residents like Flett, who are used to the company of bears, feel differently. They have lived side by side with the animals, watched the timeless spectacle of mothers emerging from dens with cubs in tow, profited from their predictable fall schedules and occasionally fled from them in terror. To them, it's like living in a cozy small town where everyone knows your name -- even if half the residents could tear you apart with their claws.

Flett has been so upset at the sight of starving bears that she's pondered the possibility of killing seals on the unfrozen bay and hauling the meat back for the bears -- a kind of ursine public assistance program.

"They've been in our community for years and years," Flett said. "They're like neighbors."

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