We landed in Churchill on a turbo prop plane at 9:30 this morning, eager to start our adventure at Polar Bears International’s Keeper Leadership Camp. Upon arrival, the group was loaned Canada Goose Chilliwack parkas to keep us warm on our journey. We headed into the Polar Bear Capital of the World for the first time on a Tundra Buggy® vehicle. The dirt roads along the way were lined with Canada geese and snow geese. Churchill served as a thriving Canadian armed services base during WWII as well as a rocket research center until the late 1960s. Today, this small community of 850 people relies on ecotourism as its major economic activity. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to Churchill to observe beluga whales, birds, and polar bears. The lives of the local people are intertwined with the polar bear population along the Hudson Bay.
As part of our tour, we arrived at the Polar Bear Holding Facility just in the nick of time to see a helicopter lifting a sedated polar bear for release farther north along the Hudson Bay. Over time, the community has evolved from shooting problem bears to relocating them as a solution to living with bears so vital to their economy. The Polar Bear Alert program was established in 1981 to protect both people and polar bears. Polar bears that wander into town are reported to the authorities. Most bears are easily scared away with cracker shots, but the more persistent bears are trapped, held in the facility for up to 30 days, and then released far from town. Since the start of the Polar Bear Alert program, over 2,000 bears have been saved by relocation.
We also had the pleasure of spending part of our afternoon with tribe elder Betty and her husband, Jim. Betty and Jim have spent their lives practicing sustainable trapping methods on the tundra. Betty began trapping at an early age and taught our group that responsible trapping helps nature keep balance. Betty and Jim have lived successfully off the land trapping animals such as martins, beavers, wolverines, foxes, and wolves for the fur trade. We are inspired by the way they live as one with nature and play a vital role in the stewardship of the land. Betty reminds us that “the land is a beautiful place that can be destroyed if you don’t know or don’t care.”
On our way out to the lodge, we observed coastal woodland caribou, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes, several bird species, and our first polar bear sighting! It has been a long and overwhelming day full of excitement and information. As we settle into the lodge, processing all that we have learned, we look forward to the adventures to come.
This blog post was written by keepers Hali O’Connor, San Diego Zoo, Amy Hash, Oregon Zoo, Anne Barilla, Roger Williams Zoo, and Tiffany Mayo, Cleveland Zoo. Read Hali’s previous post, Brown Bear Fun. You can also read blog posts from the other keepers attending Keeper Leadership Camp.