'Something has definitely changed:' 3 bear species found in same northern Manitoba spot

A scientist using motion-activated cameras in northern Manitoba is telling a three bears story that has a very different ending than the familiar fairy tale.

Wapusk NP cameras record first proof of polar bears, grizzlies and black bears sharing the same habitat

A grizzly bear is seen in northern Manitoba's Wapusk National Park in a July 8, 2017, handout photo taken by a camera trap. A researcher from the University of Saskatchewan says he's got the first recorded proof of grizzly, black and polar bears all using the same habitat. (University of Saskatchewan handout/The Canadian Press)

A Saskatchewan scientist is telling a three bears story that has a very different ending than the familiar fairy tale.

Doug Clark of the University of Saskatchewan says he's got the first recorded proof of grizzly, black and polar bears all using the same land.

"Scientifically, it has never been documented anywhere," said Clark, whose paper was published in the journal Arctic Science.

Clark and his colleagues have been operating research camps in Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba along Hudson Bay since 2011 to study bear-human interactions. But something unusual turned up on their motion-activated cameras.

Between 2011 and 2017, the team documented 401 visits from all three of Canada's bear species.

Most of those visits — 366 — were from polar bears. But 25 were from black bears and 10 were from grizzlies.

This isn't just science catching up to what's been going on forever, Clark said. Researchers have been busy on that particular piece of ground since the 1960s without ever observing the three species mingling regularly, although Clark recalls spotting a grizzly in the area in the late '90s.

"Back then it was unheard of," he said. "But something has definitely changed in that part of the world and they are regulars now.

"We have been picking them up every year in our cameras. There's some pretty strong indications that at least one [grizzly] bear is denning not too far away."

Scientists have guessed the three species may have used the same habitat in Beaufort Delta in the top corner of the Northwest Territories. But it's never been confirmed, despite the presence of polar-grizzly hybrids.

New bear on the block

In Wapusk, it seems grizzlies are the new bear on the block.

Black bears and polar bears have long used the area. The boreal forest — good black bear habitat — goes almost to the shore in many places and the coastline gives polar bears access to sea ice where they can hunt seals.

But grizzlies are currently spreading out, probably from the Thelon Game Sanctuary northeast of Great Slave Lake, local elders say. Clark said that's likely to be what is happening in the park.

"[Grizzlies] have undergone a very significant range expansion in the past couple decades. They have expanded their range out to the Hudson Bay coast and down into Manitoba and possibly even into Ontario."

Berry abundance has increased over the last decades and Clark suggests that's encouraging young grizzlies looking for their own turf to settle down.

A black bear is seen in Wapusk National Park in a May 16, 2016, handout photo taken by a camera trap. Although more prevalent than grizzlies, black bears are much less common than polar bears in the area. (University of Saskatchewan handout/The Canadian Press)

Nobody really knows. Clark said climate change, which is both affecting sea ice and changing the plants that grow locally, is likely a factor.

"The place is warming like crazy."

There's no evidence yet of the three bear species coming in contact with each other. But the cameras did record a black bear and a polar bear crossing paths within three hours of each other.

"No question, they knew each other were in the area and they likely had an idea what each other was," Clark said.

"How they interact is a really big question. There's all kinds of things that could go on."

A polar bear is seen in Wapusk National Park in an Oct. 6, 2014, handout photo taken by a camera trap. Researchers are trying to determine if polar bears, long the dominant species in the area, are threatened by the encroachment of grizzly and black bears. (University of Saskatchewan handout/The Canadian Press)

Also unknown is the probable result of the new mix.

"It could go all kinds of ways," said Clark, who points out that grizzly and polar bears have co-existed in the past to the mutual benefit of both.

The moral of the story is that humans will have to consider how — and to whose benefit — they will manage wild populations that are shifting as habitats change.

"The big, big question is what are people going to do about this? Is this a wonderful, novel thing or is this an encroaching threat to polar bears?

"This forces us to take a hard look at our assumptions about conservation."

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