The weather is getting colder and the waters of Hudson Bay will soon start to freeze. This means it is time for the Polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba to get ready to head back out on the ice once it forms. Dr. Lunn, our Polar bear scientist whose research you are helping to support with your Bring Back the Wild™ Campaign, has just returned from the field. We caught up with him to hear all about tracking Polar bears and what it’s like to be a scientist with a ton of questions.
Finishing Field Work for another Year
I have now finished the field program for the year and it certainly was an exciting adventure. Since my first report, I flew another 13.9 hours and caught 20 more Polar bears. I put collars on four more mother bears with cubs so I can track them later.
Over the entire time I was in Churchill, I flew over 5,000 km in a helicopter looking for Polar bears. That is about the same as the straight-line distance between Victoria, BC and St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the end of my time in the field, I had collected over 180 samples. These samples allow me to determine how old each bear is, the types and levels of pollutants in the bears, and also what types of animals the bears were eating out on the sea ice.
This year, I noticed that there were fewer bears than I would have normally expected to find. One reason may be that there is a different pattern in where and when the sea ice melted this past summer. Ice melts faster in some places and slower in others depending on the year which can affect where some bears came ashore. For example, two bears that I put collars on last year, came ashore along the coast of Ontario instead of Manitoba.
Another reason may be related to the earlier breakup of sea ice in Hudson Bay. This population of Polar bears has declined in numbers and fewer cubs are being produced. Therefore, what I saw this year may simply be the result of ongoing changes in Hudson Bay. In reality, there is no one explanation but rather a number of reasons, each contributing a bit.
I started the field program hoping to capture at least 100 Polar bears; the final number was 65 Polar bears. Am I disappointed? No, one thing about being a scientist is documenting what you see and learning new things. Often, when you finish, you go home with more questions than answers. Now I have to come up with questions and hypotheses to explain why I did not see or capture as many bears as I had planned!
Preparing for Next Year
It took me almost three days to clean and pack all the equipment I used so that it is all ready for next year. I also had to count everything so that I can order new supplies for next year. With that job done and my gear either stored in Churchill or sent back to my office, it was time for me to leave Churchill and head back to my home in Edmonton.
Over the winter, I will be following the Polar bears with collars from my office desk. I will be able to see where they are without having to leave home. I will also be analyzing the data I did collect and writing reports of what I found.
Before I know it, I will be packing to head back to Churchill for another season of work!
Final Polar Bear Summary for 2012
Number of Polar bears captured = 65
Number of satellite collars put on = 10
Number of family groups (mothers and cubs) captured = 10
Number of hours flown in a helicopter = 51.5
Distance flown in a helicopter = 5,047 km