Town of Churchill says leave our polar bears alone

A pair of orphan polar bear cubs are on standby for a flight to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, but community leaders in Churchill say it's time to leave the bears where they were born.

Town council wants the province to leave two orphan polar bear cubs in the north

Research being spearheaded from the University of Saskatchewan is looking at polar bears' activity and behaviour, with their size also tracked over the course of seasons to give insights into long-term conservation. (CBC)

A pair of orphan polar bear cubs are on standby for a flight to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, but community leaders in Churchill say it's time to leave the bears where they were born.

Manitoba Conservation officers have the two bears locked up in the town's "bear jail" with plans to fly them to Winnipeg.

Churchill mayor Mike Spence says if you count the two cubs in lockup today, there has probably been nine bears shipped out of the community in the last four years.

That is too many, says Spence.

"What we've been going through over the last number of years with orphan cubs directly going to the zoo is not an option. We've heard that loud and clear from community members," Spence says.

Churchill mayor Mike Spence says community members "pissed off" seeing orphan bears sent south (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Spence says the two bears are from different mothers and are 'yearlings', approximately 11-months-old.

Spence says he spoke directly with Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires earlier this week asking for some time to think about options for the bears.

Perhaps, Spence says, the bears could be released back onto the ice with tracking collars so researchers could determine if they survive.

"It would be basically like a trial. Because once you take them out of the population like what we are doing [and] sending them to a zoo...that's it," Spence says.

He was told later by a ministry staff person that the bears were headed south.

There were 351 polar bear encounters in Churchill last year, a record for the community. Sixty-five bears needed to be tranquilized and wound up in the polar bear jail, before being released into the wild.

Churchill's mayor and council are firm in the belief the bears should remain in the north, but for some that conclusion is not cut-and-dry.

Frontiers North Adventures president John Gunter was out with clients looking at bears two weeks ago and saw one of the two orphan cubs and reported it to Manitoba Conservation.

Gunter has mixed feelings about shipping the bears out versus leaving them to nature's hand. He knows both bears have little chance of survival in the wild and sees value in having them educate people in a zoo.

The number of orphan bears shipped south is growing rapidly. (CBC)

"It's a tough one. I don't think anyone has the answer and I think if you ask people from the zoological community I think that they would share the sentiment of that the town has at this point, that the Assiniboine Park Zoo and the International Polar Bear Conservancy are full and there is no place in Canada for these bears to go," Gunter says.

Gunter does agree there is an opportunity to collect more science and data on what happens to orphan cubs if they are released and his views are generally accepted by experts.

'These cubs would not survive on their own'

Dr. Andrew Derocher is a professor of biology at the University of Alberta and did polar bear research on the sea ice on Hudson Bay last spring.

Derocher was also one of a number of biologists canvassed by the Manitoba government on what to to do with the orphan bears currently housed in Churchill.

"The consensus was that these cubs would not survive on their own, but that still raises the question of do you want to interfere with animals that would perish on their own? Or, do you want to intervene and move them into a captive facility?" Derocher tells CBC News.

That's more of an ethical than a scientific discussion Derocher says.

Derocher says the bears in jail in Churchill likely have less than a five per cent chance of survival if released. That isn't actually unusual, says the biologist. Many — one in five — cubs with a mother do not live to adulthood.

The problem, Derocher says, that has developed in moving the bears to Winnipeg is there is nowhere else for them to go. Canada's zoos are indeed at polar bear capacity and currently there is no regulatory framework under U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in place to send the bears to American zoos, even though some are certainly up to the task.

Derocher says the conversation about what to do with orphan bears is timely as they are appearing in greater numbers and the current total population of Hudson Bay polar bears is healthy.

Fitting the bears with tracking devices was one of the options discussed among the biologists and the Manitoba government regarding the two bears in Churchill.

Derocher says there would be some value in tracking them after release, but warns the technology is not quite perfect yet and the expense to do so would be steep.

Orphan polar bears could end up at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (CBC News )

Derocher, like Gunter, has struggled with a firm answer as to what to do with the orphan bears.

"I am of two minds," he said. "I don't think there is a definitive on this and it really is a policy decision that has to be made by the Manitoba government in consultation with their biologists and the people of Manitoba."

To that end, Manitoba's ministry of Sustainable Development is consulting with the town of Churchill and Mayor Spence for a solution.

A statement from Minister Rochelle Squires says the polar bears of Churchill are "truly irreplacable."

"While the department of Sustainable Development is keenly focused on ensuring their survival, our government is looking to work collaboratively with the community and our scientists to determine the future of these cubs and the best way to preserve the polar bear population near Churchill," wrote Squires.


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.