Stuart Forster tells the story of the Polar Bear Holding Facility in Churchill, Manitoba, the institution nicknamed the ‘bear jail’.
“Bears come from anywhere at any time. Churchill’s the type of place where there’s no time of the year that there’s zero chance of seeing a polar bear,” says Brett Whitlock as we talk outside of the world’s only Polar Bear Holding Facility. Many locals refer to the building near Churchill Airport as the ‘bear jail’.
Disclosure: Stuart Forster, the author of this post, travelled as a guest of Destination Canada, who did not review or approve this article.
Brett is the District Supervisor Conservation Officer of the Churchill District. Employed by Sustainable Development, a department of Manitoba’s provincial government, his job entails enforcing fishing and wildlife-related policies as well as managing the Polar Bear Alert Program that watches out for bears encroaching upon the town, which lies roughly 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
“On any given day I could be signing invoices at my desk, working on an investigation or taken away from that to go chase a bear off the beach in front of town,” says Brett as we stand by the arched building that currently holds eight bears.
Polar Bear Capital of the World
Churchill’s nickname, the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’, is a reflection that sightings of the animals are common. The town is located by the Hudson Bay. An aerial survey, undertaken in August 2016, estimated that the region provides habitat to 842 polar bears. Bear sightings peak from the second-half of October into the first week of November, when the animals migrate along the coastline as they wait for the sea to freeze, so that they can head onto the ice and hunt seals.
“We don’t want to make a false sense of security. Just because we’re driving around doesn’t mean that we’re not going to miss something or a bear’s not going to sneak in behind us. We do our best to make sure they’re not in in town,” says Brett of the programme that he operates with the support of a small team.
“In the late-60s, there were there a few polar bear-human encounters, including one fatality and a bunch of maulings where people were injured. Because of that, the government of the day decided they wanted to do something to protect people around the community. They decided to implement what they called the Polar Bear Control Program,” says Brett, citing the name used for the programme from 1969 until 1980.
During that period things were done differently to today. Typically, prior to the 1980s, between 10 and 15 bears were killed each year. The average is now around 0.5 per annum.
The Polar Bear Control Program
“The Polar Bear Control Program essentially killed problem bears that came near town. That went on for about a decade. Then in the ‘70s they said ‘why are we killing these bears that are protected or a threatened species?’ So they changed the way they of doing things. Instead of killing the bears they purchased this building from the federal government and turned it into what it is today; we got the Polar Bear Holding Facility,” says Brett.
The building, known as D20, had been used for storing construction materials and was part of Fort Churchill. In 1979 it was converted into the Polar Bear Holding Facility that now has 28 cells.
“Two of them are family group cells. Five of the 28 are air-conditioned, so if we have bears in the summer months, when it’s warm out, we can keep them in the cooler cells. That doesn’t happen very often,” says Brett, who estimates that the cells are approximately 12 feet wide by 16 feet long and illuminated during daytime but not at night.
“They lay in the same spot for a few days on end. They might get up turn around and lay down again, but still they won’t move around as much as you think. But the point is you don’t really want them to be so comfortable. You want them to not want to return,” he adds.
Visitors, including myself, are not permitted into the facility when it holds bears. That, I’m told, is so that the bears do not become habituated to contact with humans.
Bare necessities for the bears
The cells have wood shavings on the floor. The shavings act as bedding and soak up urine and spilled water. The bears are given water but no food while at the facility. Brett and his team check on the bears on a daily basis but keep interactions to a minimum.
“Instead of destroying the problem bears we’re now holding them in this facility, keeping them for a period of time that’s determined by the bear’s history; what they did to get into the holding facility and the current number of bears in the facility,” says Brett, who does what he can to avoid filling the facility to capacity.
“Normally a bear is held for 30 days — that’s a bear that’s captured in what we call Zone One, which is the community of Churchill and immediate surrounding area. The area we’re in right now is Zone Two — we’re just outside of town, but it’s still road accessible and uninhabited,” says Brett. There’s also a third zone further from town.
“We’ve held over 2,000 bears in the facility. We handle, on average, 50 per year,” In 2015 77 bears were detained. However, not all bears that are caught in and around town are held in a cell.
“If we have a female with a cub, or two cubs, we’ll try to fly them out right away. We don’t want to have them in here and put them through any more stress than they we have to. If we have an older bear and its skinny, we don’t want to have it die in the facility. We will immobilise it and move it away, and let it have a chance of finding something to eat or a good place to lay down and have its last few days,” says Brett.
Critics of the programme
He is aware that the programme has critics.
“Inevitably, some conservationists argue it is not a humane way to treat the bears. If we deem it a problem bear, there are three options. One is to put it in the holding facility, to keep it away from causing problem behavior. Two is to euthanise the bear, to eliminate that problem. Three is to do nothing and have the chance of that bear attacking somebody and hurting somebody or damaging human property.
We think that the best option for that is to remove the bear from the problem and then release it back into the wild closer to the time when there’s ice on the bay,” he says.
Each of those helicopter relocations costs from $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the weather and the length of the flight. Inevitably, that has resulted in questions about how the Polar Bear Alert Program is funded.
“We do not sell any bears to zoos. Some bears that are deemed unable to be released into the wild, for various reasons, will be transferred to the Assinbone Park Zoo in Winnipeg — it’s a polar bear conservation centre that’s partially owned by the province. For instance, a bear that is too young to survive on its own; if we capture that bear it would be able to be transferred.
There was another one that had attacked a person. We didn’t want to have the responsibility of releasing that one and having the bear coming back and doing the same thing,” says Brett.
A diet of garbage
“We have a couple bears that are repeat offenders, every year. They’re coming into the community doing the same thing; most of those bears are habituated to garbage or food conditioned to garbage. They’re older bears that were around during the time when an open dump was in operation here. They were introduced to garbage from their mother, so that’s a habit that’s almost impossible to break for a bear,” says Brett.
“We have an ongoing list of those bears. If we capture them, we’re just going to hold them in here for a little bit longer than 30 days, because if we do release them, we know what they’re going to do. They’re just going to come back. Their history shows that,” he adds with a what-can-you-do shrug.
One bears currently held in the facility is 16-years-old and has been captured 18 times.
Churchill’s old dump was closed in 2005. Waste is now held securely before being buried at a landfill site. That has resulted in a shift in bear behaviour. A few years ago, it was common for the team to capture more subadults — bears aged between three and six years old. “Now we’re handling a lot of more adults. If you look at their numbers, they’re the same bears, just 10 years older,” reveals Brett.
Polar bears with tattoos
Each bear that is captured is ‘processed’. That involves being weighed. The biggest polar bear to have spent time at the facility was a 1,280-pound (581-kilogram) male. Detailed notes are made about markings, scars and tooth wear. Prior to release, the bears are given a numbered ear tag and a lip tattoo with the corresponding number, in case the ear tag falls out.
“All that information is put into a federal database that Environment Canada uses as well and we can track that bear’s history right from the first time it was captured. If it’s a bear that we’ve never handled before we’ll take a premolar tooth to age it unless it’s a coy — a coy meaning a ‘cub of the year’ and we know it’s less than one year,” says the District Supervisor Conservation Officer.
“If there’s a bear that feels comfortable enough to come into town when there’s people around then that could be a bear that showing signs that it’s habituated to people or not showing any intimidation. That could be classified as a problem bear. We had one in town last night. It just came off the coast. The smells of town are obviously going to attract a bear in,” says Brett, who was woken this morning at 3.50am to respond to a bear alarm.
Not all calls require human intervention.
“If that bear just comes in, walks through town and we come along it runs away and we don’t see it again, that’s fine. That’s what we want. Obviously, a bear’s going to be a bear — it’s going to come to smells and attractants. We’re not going to capture every bear that walks through Zone One because we would have hundreds of bears,” he adds.
Helicopters and pickup trucks
One technique of driving a bear out of the urban area is known as hazing. That’s the use of noise and other stimuli to drive the bear away, in a safe direction. Sometimes that involves using a helicopter.
“The easiest way is just to show up with a vehicle. Sometimes just a vehicle of the presence of us will be enough to for the bear to turn and go in the other direction. My truck’s got a siren on it for the enforcement aspect of my job. If that doesn’t work, we use cracker shells or bird bangers, scare pistols — they make various noises. If that doesn’t work, we can escalate to rubber bullets or bean bags. We have access to paintball guns — I’ve never used one because I find it my shotgun has the opportunity to use cracker shells, bean bags and rubber bullets, so I don’t need to carry another something else on me, and slugs, of course, we’re for a worst-case scenario.
I’ve never had to shoot a bear, with the exception of a rubber bullet. Some bears won’t react to rubber bullets. Some bears won’t react to cracker shells. There’s only been two instances where I’ve loaded a slug into my gun. I’ve never had to dispatch a bear. This is my fifth bear season here,” says Brett, preempting questions that I’m guessing he must be asked frequently.
The team also has the option of using culvert traps and dart guns or jab poles to immobilise bears with a tranquilising drug that remains in bears’ systems for approximately three months.
Bears with green dots
If bears are tranquelised they’re also given a green marking on their backs, which stays on their fur for roughly the same length of time. “That’s part of our drug protocol…it shows that that bear has been immobilised and has drug in its system. If that bear goes to Nunavut, where they’re actively hunting them, then the hunter can see that and say, okay, maybe I’ll pass up on that bear because it has been handled and has drug in its system.
It also helps us determine whether or not a bear’s been handled if it comes back to town. So, if we see a bear walking by that’s got a green dot on its back we can say, okay, we know that that bear’s been handled by us and what it’s been doing. I can recognise that bear and say okay, I remember that one, we released him last week and this is what he did to go in the facility,” he says.
After the bears have ‘served time’ in the Polar Bear Holding Facility they are released away from Churchill. When there’s no ice on the Hudson Bay, bears are immobilised and transported in a net, below a helicopter. The other option is to put it in a trap and drive it out of town.
“We have a release site about four miles out of town. There’s a big square structure that we built out of railway ties. It’s about seven feet tall. We back the trap right up to that wooden structure and open-up the trap door, so now the bear’s looking at a wall, and we get back in our truck and go away,” explains Brett, who moved to Churchill from Norway House, initially to take a field role as a Natural Resource Officer.
Conserving the polar bear population
“It’s all about balance of populations. You have to realise that you can’t conserve every animal because if you conserve every animal and overpopulate a certain population of animals, they’re going to get disease and there’s going to be a big crash in the population. You have to realise that hunting or trapping is a good thing because it weeds out some of the population. Otherwise you could get an overabundant species. Conservation isn’t only saving every animal but also managing populations and their habitats,” he says.
It’s clear that Brett is passionate about what he does. His favourite part of his job is, “getting paid to do what I do… seeing everybody lined up there watching us do a bear release…I wonder how much those people have paid to come and see us from a distance and I’m getting paid to do work on this bear. That’s really neat. I’ll definitely miss that aspect of the job whenever I do leave here.”
But the other side of the job is its long hours and alarm calls in the middle of the night. That can be stressful. “We’re always going to have four people responding to every call, even in the middle of the night,” he reveals.
Brett has a unique role with responsibilities relating to polar bears that can sometimes be misunderstood.
“I wouldn’t say it’s imprisoning them. We’re not putting them in here to punish them for something. We’re putting him in here to protect them from causing more damage or, inevitably, hurting somebody and then themselves getting dispatched or euthanized, so I don’t think it’s a punishment. That’s why we hold call it a holding facility. The term jail really makes it sound like it’s a punishment by putting them in here. We’re trying to save their lives,” says Brett of Churchill’s Polar Bear Holding Facility.
If you’re in Churchill and need to report a polar bear sighting call 204-675-2327 (that’s 675-BEAR on an alphabetic telephone dial pad).
Stuart visited Churchill after spending time at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge, approximately 70 kilometres north of the town.
Polar Bear International’s International Polar Bear Day is 27th February.
The photographs illustrating this article are by Why Eye Photography.
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