When your town’s biggest nuisance can kill you with a casual swipe of a paw tipped with razor-sharp claws, grabbing the nearest shotgun when confronted with one seems a prudent idea.
But that thinking led to the deaths of dozens of polar bears in and around Churchill, Man., a few decades ago.
“Basically, if a bear came into town, it got shot,” said Manitoba Conservation’s Bob Windsor, who has helped remove about 100 bears from Churchill over the past three years. “That was not acceptable.”
The Polar Bear Alert program changed all that, said Windsor.
The program is simple — local residents call the Polar Bear Alert Line to tell conservation officers of an approaching bear. A humane trap is set, and the bear is taken to “Polar Bear Jail,” where they are later lifted by helicopter to an area away from the town.
The Polar Bear Alert line is manned at all times.
Windsor said the program, while simple, has been extremely effective, drastically cutting down on the number of polar bear deaths.
“We haven’t had a fatality (from a polar bear) in the town of Churchill since 1983,” said Windor. “When I look at it that way, it makes it all worthhile.”
What happens to bears in jail?
Polar bears are incredibly strong. Once they’re captured, the bear trap is chained to the cell they’ll be held in or else they’ll push the trap right out of the facility.
Once held, they are tranquilized and researchers assess the bear’s condition. They are tagged and tattooed so Manitoba Conservation can see if a bear returns.
Conditions inside the jail are cool and sparse. There is as little human interaction with bears as possible.
Bears are not fed. They can go months without eating, and if they’re fed they tend to come back to the facility once released.
After a quarantine period, bears are tranquilized and then carefully wrapped up in a net, making sure their heads and ear tags are not tangled. The net is attached to a helicopter, and the bear is taken to a safe location.
Researchers make sure the bear is alert before leaving the area, as wolves have been known to prey on a groggy bear.