CBC Digital Archives

Operation Bearlift saves Churchill's polar bears

It prowls the globe's frozen north, a massive white bruin that fears no predator. The polar bear is both a totemic symbol of Canada and an important part of the Arctic ecosystem. But as four decades of intensive study has shown, climate change is threatening polar bear populations. CBC Digital Archives presents a dozen clips about how these bears of the great white north have gone from trophy hunter's quarry to nuisance to protected species.

By the time the ice forms on Hudson Bay to take polar bears to the seal-rich feeding grounds to the north, they're hungry enough to eat almost anything - including garbage from the nearby town of Churchill, Man. That's a problem for the town, which has resorted to shooting bears to keep humans safe. In 1971, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has a solution: airlifting the bears to a spot 320 kilometres down the coast. In this CBC-TV report, IFAW head Brian Davies explains the reasoning behind Operation Bearlift.
• Until 1971, conservation officers addressed the issue of problem bears by moving them by air about 100 kilometres away, spending about $40,000 in 1970 alone. This distance proved to be insufficiently far, because the polar bears quickly came back. In extreme cases, bears were shot - seven in 1970, and a projected 30 in 1971.
  • The International Fund for Animal Welfare paid about $500 each for problem polar bears to be tranquilized and flown to the mouth of the Kaskattama River on Hudson Bay. In the 1971 season, 24 bears in total were flown out, and according to the Toronto Star, four of them returned to forage for garbage in Churchill.

• In 1972 Davies suggested it should not be IFAW's responsibility to move the polar bears. He suggested the federal government cover the costs and consider it a training exercise for armed forces that would have to carry out a similar operation in the event an environmental disaster such as an oil spill.

• For more about Brian Davies and IFAW, see the CBC Digital Archives clip 'Barbaric and cruel' from the topic Pelts, Pups and Protest: The Atlantic Seal Hunt

Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: Oct. 18, 1971
Guest(s): Brian Davies
Reporter: Colin Hoath
Duration: 1:46

Last updated: October 2, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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