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Canada: Too warm for the bears

Polar bears in the snow.

Biologists have documented a 17 percent decline in the Hudson Bay polar bear population as a result of the warming trend.

The shooting started up just after dinner. First a boom, like a shotgun blast, followed by the crackle of small-arms fire and a volley of other projectiles that whistled and squealed like bottle rockets. I got up and looked out the window. Two patrol vehicles were parked across the street at the edge of town, shining their headlights into an empty field.

Back home in Oakland, California, this type of artillery barrage would send me diving to the floor. But in Churchill, Manitoba, it's the sound of bear trouble. The officers were shooting to scare, not kill.

My reporting companion, Jon, was already reaching for his coat. We had arrived in Churchill a few days earlier to produce a radio documentary about how the town and its polar bears are coping with the initial effects of climate change. One of these effects is an increase in bear traffic through Churchill.

"Let's go," Jon said. "Bring the recorder." We pulled on our boots and rushed outside, still fumbling with the zippers on our parkas as we slipped and stumbled across the icy pavement.

The patrol vehicles had moved on and were pushing a path through the snow some 200 yards out. There were no other cars on the street, and no sign of any bears. I turned on our minidisk audio recorder and listened through the microphone for the next round of gunfire. Just as I was feeling rather pleased that my headphones doubled as earmuffs, Jon suggested that it might be prudent to be a bit less cavalier about our safety.

"Maybe it's not such a good idea to be out here," he said.

Bear lying down, shot by a tranquilizer.

The most persistent intruders about town are shot with tranquilizers and sentenced to 30 days in the local "polar bear jail," a converted warehouse by the airport.

He had a point. If the bear patrol inadvertently frightened the intruder back toward town, we'd be the welcoming committee -- or the welcoming buffet. A large polar bear weighs more than 1,000 pounds, can run 40 miles per hour and, we'd been told, tends to recognize people as prey.

Out from the spreading darkness of the tundra, a truck approached and the driver rolled down his window. It was Churchill's mayor, Mike Spence, wearing a camouflage hunting jacket. "Which way did he go?" he asked. "Did you see him?"

Like a sheriff rounding up a posse, the mayor invited us to join the chase. He veered off the road along a track through the snow and scanned the terrain for polar bear prints, which aren't difficult to spot, since they're the size of dinner plates.

At first glance, Churchill seems like an unlikely place for a study in the economics of global warming. It's a remote, frigid outpost of Quonset huts and low-slung buildings huddled on the western edge of Canada's Hudson Bay and surrounded by hundreds of miles of vacant tundra. The town has about 800 residents and only one paved street, with a few cafes, some tourist hotels and a gloomy tavern the locals refer to as "the Dark Side" (as in "Norm went over to the Dark Side").

But Churchill is also the self-appointed "Polar Bear Capital of the World," with a thriving ecotourism industry. People come here to see an animal that's particularly vulnerable to climate change. What might happen to the community if the bears can't survive the warming trend?

Polar bear on hind legs leans against tourist turck.

Tourists aboard a Tundra Buggy are greeted by a curious bear.

The polar bear is a marine mammal, and each fall, about a thousand of them gather outside the town, waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay. When the ice melts in late spring, they come ashore and are marooned on land all summer. They live off their fat reserves until the ice forms again in the fall. Once freeze-up occurs, the bears take off to spend the winter stalking seals and riding the ice floes around the bay.

Churchill's livelihood operates on a similar feast-and-famine cycle. Some 10,000 visitors arrive each fall, generating a six-week cash bonanza for the town that the locals call "bear season." This brief flurry of tourism is by far the most important industry for the town's economy. Hotels are full, restaurants are jammed, and droves of camera-wielding enthusiasts fork over big bucks to go on bear-viewing excursions aboard Tundra Buggies, giant vehicles that look like souped-up school buses on monster truck tires.

But this pattern has gone awry, thanks to a warming climate. During our trip to Churchill, temperatures were well above their historical averages (-26.9 degrees Celsius for January), and longtime residents said that this fall was the warmest they'd experienced. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies supports what Churchill and other communities are experiencing around the world: In November, it pronounced 2005 to be the warmest year on record. (Based on more than a century of recording meteorological data, 2005 registered the highest average global surface temperature.)

"By the middle of the century, if there's no sea ice on Hudson Bay, there are no bears. They are not going to be able to adapt -- unless they go out and learn how to drink Slurpees."

For Churchill and its bears, the sea ice has begun to melt earlier and form later, giving the bears three weeks less to feed. Researchers have already begun to see the impact. Canadian and U.S. biologists have documented a 17 percent decline in the western Hudson Bay polar bear population over the past 30 years as a result of the warming trend. If bears don't accumulate enough fat reserves before the summer, they are less likely to reproduce. Seasonal changes also make it harder for cubs to survive. Younger bears are more likely to starve during the summer and less likely to have the strength to swim between floes once the ice starts to break up.

If the warming trend continues, researchers say the polar bear population around Churchill could die off in the next 50 years. "By the middle of the century, if there's no sea ice on Hudson Bay, there are no bears," said Dr. Jane Waterman, a wildlife biologist at the University of Central Florida, who has studied polar bear behavior in Churchill. "The bears are not going to be able to adapt -- unless they go out and learn how to drink Slurpees."

Apparently, that would suit the bears just fine -- they've been showing up in town in greater numbers than ever. With diminishing sea ice and no access to their primary food source, the bears are drawn to the town by the scent of food and garbage. In the past they would have been shot on sight. But when the ecotourism industry began to take off, Manitoba conservation officials started a program called "Polar Bear Alert" to keep man and bear safely apart.

The town of Churchill.

Some 10,000 visitors arrive in Churchill (population around 800) each fall for "bear season." It's the most important industry for the town's economy.

Churchill residents can dial 675 BEAR to summon patrol officers with an arsenal of special munitions designed to drive off the animals without resorting to lethal force. The most stubborn offenders are darted with tranquilizers and sentenced to 30 days in the local "polar bear jail," a converted warehouse by the airport.

But more than 200 bears have wandered into town each of the past two years -- far more than the jail can accommodate. (Because Churchill is the last place to melt in late spring, many bears gravitate there rather than elsewhere.) Without cell space, conservation officials are forced to fly the bears north by helicopter and drop them off far enough away from town that they won't come back, but the strategy doesn't always work.

Still, Churchillians know they're a lot better off with the bears than without them. So they take a few extra precautions, like keeping their children home after dark and always leaving their doors unlocked -- in case someone needs an emergency bear shelter.

But as global warming draws more bears into town and threatens to undermine Churchill's mainstay industry, it's creating opportunities for other industries to flourish. The loss of sea ice on Hudson Bay is bad for the bears but good for Churchill's long-neglected port terminal. Different trade routes are opening up as the shipping season extends deeper into the fall, giving Churchill -- and economically depressed Manitoba -- the potential to export more grain from the Canadian prairies.

"We're all going to have to learn to live differently," said Myrtle DeMuelles, who came to Churchill in 1955 as a teenager. "In the 50 years I've been here, I've never seen such warm weather." DeMuelles also said that the bears are coming back skinny now. "What's to say they won't get hungry enough to start hunting humans? After all, we're on the food chain as well up here."

Nick Miroff is a student at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He traveled to Churchill as part of an ongoing reporting project called "Early Signs: How Global Warming Affects Commerce, Culture and Community."


joyce andrews - chester, united kingdom
Read with interest as I'm coming to see the bears this October. Can you advise me what to wear as I can't visualise how cold it must be.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Very cold! You should consult travel guides and agencies. Dress warmly.

jessica wokes - St.Claude, Manitoba
I think that what is going on is horrific, but it is not just the polar bears that we need to worry about. The town of Churchill is below sea level and if the ice continues to melt the town will slowly start drowning. The bears will be no more and also the people of Churchilll will be gone and moved and the town with all of its artifacts and treasures and all of our memories will be no more. My home and so many others will be gone. So as you see, it is not just about the wildlife but also the life of others as well. Being from Churchill I know how hard this town is to leave and for those who have never left then this is going to be the end of their way of living and the beginning of a new way.

Jordan Macleann - Melb, vic
Wow, those men had some experience. I belive that humans are causing global warming. I'm a- year old girl. I have given up on using my hair dryer and will not go in the car lol..tarnii-jorden

Tyler Wagar - Winnipeg, Manitoba
Under the "share your reaction" part, why does it say "enter your state" on an article about a Canadian town?

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Because we are a television series and web site based in the United States. But we welcome all our international viewers and readers.

chris lavin - wading river, ny
Valerie. when will you believe that we are causing global warming? When you are in Wyoming knee deep in the Atlantic.

Valerie Walker - Lovell, WY
If there was absolute proof humans are the largest contributor to climate change, perhaps we would have a chance to change things. But even if we all stopped today driving cars, using oil and gas to heat our homes, killed all the livestock emitting methane, shut down all polluting factories, including in third world countries, chances are, there would be no significant change. Perhaps the earth is in a natural warming cycle, to which we may be contributing, but not causing. If we shut everything down, a couple of violent volcanic explosions could set the whole thing up again for increasing temperatures. Perhaps we are seeing the evolution theory in action. Who knows; perhaps the bears will change feeding habits and go mix with the Grizzlies and Brown bears. Now that would be an interesting sight.

Louise Pye - Sherawater, Nova Scotia
I think that what we, as humans, are doing to the environment is frightening. We have to do something before it is too late. This problem with the polar bears, which I think is sad, is only a small part of what we are doing.

Scott Zagorski - Marysville, Ohio
Very interesting story. I like reading about "controversial" stories like this from an unbiased news source like Frontline. Too bad the main stream media doesn't cover anything like this.