Why Polar Bears Are Attacking Canadians: Melting Habitat May Be Bringing Bears Into Contact With Humans

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 4, 2013 5:16 PM EST

Global Warming Is Melting The Polar Bear Habitat
Polar Bears, like this one captured digitally Sunday, Have a dwindling habitat to contend with. Experts are blaming global warming. (Photo: Melynda Harrison/Polar Bears I)

A polar bear attack in Churchill, Manitoba, that left two people injured has brought new warnings from scientists of a rise in threatening encounters with hungry bears in a warming Arctic. "At Churchill,  the southern-most polar bears congregate every autumn, waiting for the ice to freeze so they can walk on it and hunt after having fasted all summer," Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, Winnipeg, told the International Science Times. "But over the past few years, we're seeing Hudson Bay autumn coming a week or two later, and we're seeing spring come a week or two earlier, and that's creating a desperate situation for the bears." 

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It's also, along with other pressures to the ecosystems, changing the role of zoos from institutions that display to institutions that rescue. For example, the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy was conceived partially to house and transition orphaned polar bear cubs that would otherwise not survive on their own, Peterkin told the International Science Times. And the rest of the centre is designed to research and educate  the public about the environmental stressors on the polar bears.

"We're seeing an increase of frequency of encounters of polar bears and humans", Dr. Steven Amstrup of Polar Bears International told the International Science Times. "Polar bears increasingly will be ranging farther and wider to find sources of food, and that will bring them into contact with humans more frequently. The result of such encounters is that family groups are separated, killed or orphaned."

Added Dr. Amstrup, who researches bears in the wild, "We have long expected that by the middle of the century we will lose two-thirds of the polar bear population, and nothing has changed with the amount of our gas emissions to change that trajectory, or even to give us reason to be more optimistic." 

The bears in Churchill were waiting for the ice to freeze just a few days ago, when, on November 1, three friends were walking home from a party just before dawn. Churchill is dubbed, "The Polar Bear Capital of the World." Indeed, they found themselves suddenly followed by a young polar bear. The bear chased one of the women, a young restaurant worker onto a porch, flinging her up against the wall, biting at her head. A retired tour guide emerged from his house and beat the bear with a shovel, allowing the restaurant worker to flee into his home.

The polar bear knocked him to the ground and pounced on his chest. The bear did not let go of him until a neighbor aimed his truck's high beams at it, according to theGuardian.com. The polar bear headed for the town's main street and was later shot dead by Manitoba conservation officials. Both of the bear's victims were treated in a Winnipeg hospital for lacerations, with the tour guide's injuries to his face stomach and ears being particularly severe.

The attack follows one in Churchill in September, when another restaurant worker, late at night, scared off a bear by lighting up his cell phone. That bear was tranquilized and taken to Assiniboine Park Conservancy, as was another one; an orphaned  cub, found walking alone near Churchill's airport, according to Peterkin.

Native communities in Canada are reporting an increase in the numbers of polar bears on land, as well, according to The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The increased observation of bears on land is a result of changing distribution patterns and a result of changes in the accessibility of sea ice habitat," a spokesman said.

Indeed, hungry bears are increasingly coming into closer contact with humans, as diminishing ice is shrinking their habitat. "Polar bears have evolved for a life on the sea ice, which they rely on for reaching their seal prey," said Amstrup. "But the Arctic sea ice is rapidly diminishing due to a warming earth, affecting the entire Arctic ecosystem, from copepods to seals to walruses. For polar bears, sea ice losses mean reduced access to food."

An international consortium of polar bear specialists meeting in Norway determined when they last met in 2009 that retreating ice would place terrific pressure on polar bears. "Sea ice losses in the Arctic from global warming are the major threat to polar bears," a spokesman for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group said. "Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding, and in some cases, denning."

In 2012, summer losses of ice in the Arctic were larger than the size of the United States, according to the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. Canada's Western Hudson Bay population of Polar Bears has seen a 22 percent decline since the early 1980s, directly related to earlier ice break-up on the Hudson Bay, it said. 

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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