Polar bears on the prowl in cut-off Labrador community

Polar bears were spotted Thursday in St. Lewis, but the road into town is closed due to bad weather, trapping residents alone with the predator. Officials say they have a helicopter on standby in case of an emergency.

'People are kind of used to it around here, but at the same time, it's terrifying,' resident says

Polar bears like the one in this file photo are posing a threat to residents in two Labrador communities. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Polar bear sightings in St. Lewis, a town on Labrador's south coast that's currently cut off from the rest of the province due to a road closure, have prompted officials to place helicopters on standby in the event of an attack or emergency.

The Department of Land Resources confirmed reports of recent polar bear sightings both in St. Lewis and in Charlottetown, about 100 kilometres further north.

A bear was last seen in St. Lewis at 5 a.m. Thursday, while the last report in Charlottetown happened at 10 a.m., a department spokesperson said.

Vanessa Rolfe, who works in the town office in St. Lewis — home to about 200 people — said she first heard of the prowling animals' presence after one resident warned her to be careful driving home earlier this week.

"There was a polar bear outside his shed door," she said.

The man "just caught a little glimpse of something on the side of his eye, and when he turned around there was a huge polar bear walking by."

It's a scary situation.- Vanessa Rolfe, St. Lewis resident

The town is nervous, especially since most houses are "quite separated," she said — and with the bad weather, they're completely isolated from help. "Our roads are closed, so no one can get in here," Rolfe said.

A number of residents have either seen the animal or noticed signs of it, she said.

"He's been roaming around for the last two days now ... everyone kinda got their pets in their house, and their children," she said. "It's a scary situation."

Rolfe said another resident discovered paw prints in the snow outside his house and marks where the bear had slid down a snow bank. 

"People are kind of used to it around here, but at the same time, it's terrifying."

Keep your distance

Officials are reminding residents of safety measures in case of a run-in with a bear, including traveling in groups and keeping pets and food sources indoors.

"While every encounter is different, when encountering a polar bear take note of the bear's behavior," officials advise.

"If the bear does not know you are there: quietly back away and leave the area; try to stay downwind of the animal; keep an eye on the bear; and never get between a bear and her cubs."

If the bear notices you, officials advise that you remain calm, ensure the bear isn't cornered and has as much space as possible. Then begin backing away without running, only speak when necessary and in a firm, calm tone, and avoid eye contact with the bear.

Anyone sighting a polar bear is asked to contact the local district forestry and wildlife office in Cartwright at 709-938-7362 or after hours at 709-897-7116.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Sarah Smellie