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The Grizzlies of Wapusk: an Unfolding Story of Change

Most of what I thought I knew about grizzlies literally went out the window on June 6, 1998. That morning I was flying along the west coast of Hudson Bay with a team of four park officers for our first five-day foot patrol in newly-established Wapusk National Park. Better known for polar bears, Wapusk (Cree for “white bear”) lies just east of Churchill, Manitoba and you pronounce the word like you’re clearing your throat, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

The park is part of the world’s largest peat wetland, the Hudson Bay Lowlands, described by Zac Unger as an “inhospitable jumble of tundra, bogland, and thick willows”. It isn’t what’s usually considered grizzly bear habitat and the nearest grizzlies were then thought to be a very long way northwest, up in Nunavut’s Thelon Game Sanctuary. So when I looked down from the Canadian Coast Guard helicopter we were bumming a ride on to see a brown shaggy mass galloping along a beach ridge my first thought was “Funny, I can’t see the horns on that muskox”– a species which had been shot out there a century earlier, but which was still within the realm of the plausible. My next thought was “that’s not a muskox”. We took a few low passes over what was clearly a mature male grizzly in very good condition: I can still remember his body fat rolling as he ran, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and that loud, red Bell 212.

I’d like to say that we were the first to see a grizzly in the park, but that distinction belongs to two USFWS personnel who photographed one in the same area two years earlier while surveying goose nests. However, our sighting got quite a bit of attention. Old-timers told me of sightings to the far northwest years ago, and a First Nation elder confirmed that there was a Cree name for that bear but it was not known from the park area (some families have since told me otherwise: grizzlies were there once, but they didn’t talk about them to anyone). For most folks though, and certainly within recent memory, these grizzly sightings were something new. It was news in a bigger sense too since grizzlies were thought to have been extirpated from the province of Manitoba during the 19th century.

Twenty years later it’s clear that our observation was at the beginning of something big. Soon grizzlies were seen every year in the park by scientists, park staff, and trappers. Over the past few years they’ve come closer to Churchill too, and – unsurprisingly – begun to come into conflict with people. At least two defense kills have taken place, and in July 2018 one that broke into a cabin was captured and released north of town wearing a GPS ear tag transmitter. Despite all this, after two decades of repeated observations grizzlies are still legally classified as “extirpated” under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act: a status that won’t change until evidence of breeding is documented within the province. So far, that hasn’t happened. No, it’s not an established population of grizzlies in Manitoba yet, but this is how that starts.

Wapusk’s grizzlies probably dispersed from established populations to the northwest in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, though their historic distribution is not particularly well documented. Their range is also apparently expanding in other areas of the Arctic too. Very little is known about grizzlies in northern Manitoba. How are grizzly bears making a living up there? Where do they den? What has driven their most recent range expansion? Is it likely to continue, and if so, how far? Optimistically, could they ever make it around the Bay and back to the Ungava Peninsula or Labrador? No evidence of breeding has been seen in the park, though given the very large home range of barren-ground grizzlies in the central Canadian Arctic, the bears observed in northern Manitoba are very likely part of a larger, continuous regional population of barren-ground grizzlies. These bears appear to be benefiting from a warming Arctic, at least temporarily, though precisely why isn’t clear. There’s probably not just one cause either since there have been repeated range expansions and contractions by barren-ground grizzlies over time. One possible clue about what could be driving the dispersal was revealed by my kids late last summer when they went berry picking near Churchill. They filled a bucket with blueberries in less than an hour. I was stunned because twenty-five years ago I measured berry production in the same area when I was a graduate student and it would have taken at least a whole day to fill that bucket back then.

While food is important, grizzly bear survival usually comes down to human tolerance, so the human dimensions of this situation are probably going to determine how thoroughly grizzlies establish themselves in northern Manitoba. Some communities, such as Baker Lake, Nunavut, initially had a hard time adapting to them when they showed up in the early 2000’s. Inuit there faced increasing conflicts with grizzlies, mainly over caribou meat they’d harvested and often processed at their cabins. Remarkably though, the community showed impressive restraint towards bears considering many of the town’s residents are survivors of the mass starvation that occurred in the 1950s and ‘60s when the caribou they depended on failed to show up. Some in the region have described this expansion as a wave of grizzly bear colonization that moved past Baker Lake almost two decades ago and is now hitting Churchill. I’ve heard the whole gamut of responses to grizzlies there, ranging from fear of the unknown to intense curiosity about something new. Attitudes have shifted since 1998 when a Park Management Board member told me to get out there with a trap and a rifle and get rid of the grizzly we saw. There’s still caution but now there’s also pride as Churchill residents realize that they now live in the only place where all three North American bear species have actually been observed living together.

It’s easy to give in to despair about the Arctic since things are now changing so fast up there. As climate change impacts accelerate in the Arctic there is no shortage of surprises, and most are profoundly negative from the perspectives of many people who care about the Arctic environment and its inhabitants. That bear showing itself to us twenty years ago is one of the few positive surprises though, at least from my point of view. To put what it means into perspective, grizzlies have probably gained more ground in the Canadian Arctic in the past three decades than they lost in the lower 48 states during the 20th century. Of course, from a species conservation perspective this comparison is probably a false equivalency since in the Arctic it’s unlikely they’d ever reaching anything like the density or numbers they did in places like California or the Great Plains.

Nevertheless, one lesson I’ve drawn from the still-unfolding story of grizzlies in Wapusk is that we need to rethink our perspectives on environmental change and get a bit more comfortable with the notion of being surprised by how the natural world responds to what we’re throwing at it. Many surprises in the conservation world are definitely unwelcome and while some are genuine losses (e.g. the rippling aftershocks of whitebark pine’s demise in Yellowstone), maybe we should be less hasty condemning all such events. After all, a species that’s become an iconic symbol of lost wilderness down south now has a new frontier of its own up north and it appears to be making the most of it. While it’s probably a sign of some ecological changes that are pretty serious (especially for polar bears), is the presence of grizzlies in a place where we didn’t expect to find them a bad thing in itself? I have a hard time seeing how it could be, and I’m really curious to see the next chapters of this story.

Speculating about what that might look like is risky, but there are a few things I’ll be watching for on the western coast of Hudson Bay that are relevant to bears. Wapusk’s Arctic species will lose habitat and probably settle into new equilibria where they’re increasingly dominated by boreal forest species. This means more berries and increasingly shrub-dominated tundra. That will probably appeal to moose, grizzlies, and black bears, but less so to caribou. Fish populations will probably change: Pacific salmon species are moving rapidly into the western Arctic, for example. I don’t know if we’ll see them in Hudson Bay (or even Atlantic salmon moving westward) but that would obviously be game changer for terrestrial bears. Sea ice is inexorably declining in Hudson Bay, and not in a smooth linear way, so the region’s polar bears may hit very hard times with little or no warning. I wouldn’t want to be a bear of any species around there when that happens, but I’d bet that after the dust settles most of the bears left walking that shore will be brown with long claws, and perhaps carrying some polar bear DNA too. If those bears can come to an accommodation with the coast’s human inhabitants they’ll probably do just fine for a long time to come.

Douglas Clark is an Associate Professor and Centennial Chair in Human Dimensions at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability. He served as the first Chief Warden of Wapusk National Park from 1997-2000.

And here is an important addendum from Doug: Grizzly bear-human conflicts are increasing in Churchill and nearby communities in Nunavut. In those places community members are very interested in working with Dr. Clark to monitor and better understand what bears are doing- especially around their remote cabins. Consequently we’re seeking support to purchase at least 60 remote cameras for community members to deploy at their cabins, creating a regional citizen science monitoring network to understand and prevent conflicts between people and bears in this remote region. Anyone wishing to support this effort should email Dr. Clark at d.clark@usask.ca 

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