All photos by Cyd Crouse
Amid Thanksgiving week’s media obsession with airport pat-downs and Black Friday, you may have missed important news from Washington about protecting the endangered polar bear species.
The Obama administration finalized a controversial rule today that would protect vast areas of the Arctic for the polar bear. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will protect more than 187,000 square miles of onshore barrier islands, denning areas, and offshore sea ice as critical habitat — the largest proposal the government has ever put forward in a bid to protect an imperiled species.
My friend Cyd Crouse recently shared her personal story of traveling to northern Canada to see polar bears up close.
Two weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to venture to the subarctic with my mother for some world class polar bear viewing. We flew up to Churchill, Manitoba — a tiny community perched on the banks of Hudson Bay — a 700 mile flight north of Winnipeg. Churchill has served many roles in history — first as a mistaken step on the great Northwest Passage, later as a key military location, and now (happily) as a key ecotourism and arctic research station. In October and November each year, the area around Churchill is full of polar bears. These bears have eaten very little since they last left the ice in July — they migrate from the frozen tundra toward Churchill because it is one of the first locations on Hudson Bay to freeze (due to a combination of the outflow of the Churchill River and the east/west jag of Hudson Bay that causes ice to accumulate). Anyhow, in the weeks prior to the ice freezing, their migration takes them to the land around Churchill — and gave us a great opportunity to view them in their natural habitat.
We spent two days and one long evening on a “Tundra Buggy.” These buggies are optimized for polar bear viewing as well as for navigating the tundra with minimal environmental impact. Each day we saw well over 30+ bears — and were able to view them up close and personal. We saw mother bears with their cubs, male bears sparing, and had the great opportunity to see two young bears play fight for almost three hours a few yards from our buggy. The bears were majestic, playful, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Standing on the viewing platform after dark one evening with a glass of wine and hearing a bear breaking through the willows and occasionally stopping to sniff (very loudly) me (or the wine) was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. Add to this a few arctic fox viewings, educational evenings with a local Creel woman, and a trip to the polar bear jail (a holding place for mischievous bears before they are relocated either to the tundra or ice), and it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Underlying this beautiful and magical experience are the realities of the impact of climate change on our northern neighbors. We were there in mid November, which historically has been a time when the ice would be frozen and the bears already out on the ice feeding on seals. Each year the amount of time the bears have to spend off of the ice (and therefore without food) is increasing. According to our guides, each week off of the ice can result in a 25- to 100-lbs. weight loss. The most immediate impact of that weight loss will be on the birth rate of polar bears. Females have to be of a certain weight before they will conceive in order to survive nine months with little or no food (while denning and raising their cubs). As the bears lose weight, scientists are seeing the reproductive rate of the bears drop. For this reason, and their amazing majestic nature, I hope that the polar bear will continue to be a symbol of why we all need to participate in the fight against climate change. I encourage anyone who can to take the time to get up to Churchill and see these amazing creatures.
We went with Natural Habitat Adventures, which specializes in both nature-centric adventures as well as minimizing the environmental impact of those adventures. They are an awesome group to travel with. For more info: http://churchillpolarbears.org/ or http://www.nathab.com/polar-bear-tours