Living safely with polar bears.
An autumn chill fills the air as kids jump in piles of leaves and scramble over jungle gyms on playgrounds. They ride their bikes up and down the sidewalks and chatter about their Halloween costumes. But not every community has the same experience.
For northern communities where melting sea ice forces polar bears ashore until it refreezes in the fall, the ice-free period is a time of heightened awareness and potential danger. In Churchill, Canada, for example, an early ice break-up led to a higher-than-usual number of polar bear sightings this summer, putting the community on alert. And, as always, Halloween made for a busy night for the town’s Polar Bear Alert Team, with active patrols watching for bears and keeping young trick-or-treaters safe from harm.
Across the Arctic, the ice-free period is lengthening as the climate warms. As a result, polar bears are spending more time on land in some regions, increasing the potential to come into contact with people. Some communities that seldom, if ever, saw polar bears before now report bear sightings on a regular basis.
Helping communities prepare for this new reality and ensure positive outcomes — for both bears and people — lies at the heart of Polar Bears International’s coexistence efforts.
An exciting addition to Churchill’s coexistence arsenal this year is a new series of short polar bear safety videos, which were just released. These were created with input from the Churchill Bear Smart Working Group, which includes a variety of the town’s stakeholders. It took over a year for the videos to be produced because it was so important to receive multiple rounds of input from those who knew how to best live with polar bears.
Filmed last year, the safety videos are voiced and acted mostly by locals. While Churchill residents will benefit from watching them (who doesn’t need a safety reminder?), even more so, the goal is for visitors to educate themselves before arriving in town to get a better understanding of bear safety behaviour. Among the messages is to stick with your tour group and guide at all times – they are your best safety tool if you don’t know the area (or the animal) very well.
Though the videos are now live, they will be even further revamped for 2024 after another round of input is received after this year’s polar bear season. This unique, “fun-but-serious” tool can serve as a model for other communities around the circumpolar north, considering their own educational videos.
Of course, it will take much more than safety videos to keep both polar bears and people safe in the long term. Polar Bears International is also supporting a new project which aims to uncover what deterrents might be most effective to use with polar bears. We have the classic bear spray, flares, and bear bangers, but could we offer even more non-lethal or less-lethal tools to the public?
For example, we know bears love stinky smells, but are there any smells they don’t like? Would any smell repulse a bear? We don’t know, but unlocking that mystery could lead to an interesting (even if pungent) safety tool. Also, what decibel of sound is too much for a bear? Will air horns work to scare most away, or should we go louder? And strobe lights – are these irritating enough for polar bears’ eyes to buy someone more time in an encounter?
We have lots left to learn about what polar bears don’t like, but luckily, there are many things that are working and that we will be celebrating during our annual Polar Bear Week awareness event, held this year from October 29 to November 4. We will also celebrate the bears and draw attention to the challenges they face in a warming Arctic. This includes highlighting the need to reduce conflicts with people; allowing communities to live safely with the bears so both can thrive.
At Polar Bears International, we work on a number of fronts to promote bear-safe measures across the Arctic. These include:
Educational efforts – From easy-to-follow posters to colouring books tailored to the unique situations in different communities, our co-produced outreach tools share best practices on staying safe and avoiding conflict.
Research projects – This work ranges from testing ground-based radar to detect approaching bears to funding waste management studies and researching the best tools to deter polar bears.
A “Bear Smart” model – By supporting the efforts of the town of Churchill to become the world’s first “Polar Bear Smart Community,” we’re helping to develop a template that could serve as a model for other northern communities.
Community support – In addition, we’re supporting Cree communities in northern Ontario on bear-safe measures that meet their unique needs and have started collaborating with the Ny-Ȧlesund community on Svalbard on safety materials, deterrence tools, and training.
During Polar Bear Week, we invite you to celebrate the bears with us by tuning in to our Tundra Connections broadcasts and Polar Bears Cams. Both give you a window into the polar bears’ world, and live from the snowy tundra during the annual gathering of bears near Churchill, Canada. You can also help support our coexistence efforts by donating in support of our work.
Together, we can ensure polar bears roam on the sea ice for generations to come — and improve conditions for people too.
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