NATURE

Discover how one Canadian town deals with the annual arrival of migrating polar bears.

Each October, the remote Canadian town of Churchill in Manitoba plays host to some very unusual guests. More than a thousand hungry polar bears gather there to await the refreezing of Hudson Bay and then move out on the ice in pursuit of their traditional winter diet of seal. The world's largest land carnivore, polar bears can be very dangerous for humans as well as sea creatures -- but for tiny Churchill, they also are a tourist-dollar bonanza.

Since Churchill is smack in the middle of the polar bears' migration route, the town's yearly bear encounter is a busy and tense period for the local wildlife department. Although the townsfolk have learned to appreciate the animals from a safe distance, the roughly 15,000 tourists who stream into Churchill from around the world often ignore the safety precautions prescribed by local officials. Single-mindedly intent on catching a close glimpse of the bears and perhaps lulled into complacency by the town setting, some human visitors are unmindful of the hazards posed by creatures that are massive (most weigh more than 700 pounds), fast, easily camouflaged against the snow -- and very unpredictable.

Scientists who study the Churchill bears have been able to collect invaluable information to add to the world's knowledge of polar bears. Experts worry that if global warming continues to shrink the animal's natural habitat, the polar bear population will diminish over the next 50 to 100 years. Regardless, however, the town of Churchill will continue to host these majestic, fascinating, and troublesome but profit-generating creatures during their annual sojourn.


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