Wildlife

Think like a bear: How humans and bears are learning to coexist

Human and bears sharing more landscapes now than ever before. As we continue to invade their world, will we be able to coexist?

Nestled on the shores of Hudson Bay, the town of Churchill sits on the migration path of the world’s most southerly polar bear population.
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The sun won’t rise for another hour, but Andrew Szklaruk is already on patrol in his truck here in Churchill, Man., prowling through the town’s frozen shadows looking for polar bears.

He shines headlights down every snowbound street, each backroad and waterfront trail, running a practised eye behind all the sheds, half-ton trucks, boulders and clumps of evergreens. He’s looking for the fresh prints of a massive paw or a hump of something cream coloured against the white snow, or perhaps a ghostly hint of movement.

One ear is tuned to the radio at his right hand that will blare instantly if a townsperson calls the bear hotline, and the other is listening for frantic shouts or dog barks that signal a sighting. A couple of nights ago, he was called out at midnight, 3 a.m. and again at 5 a.m. to nudge bears away from the town. Over the years, he’s chased polar bears out of every single corner of this place, he tells me.

Unlike most of the thousands of visitors who flock to Churchill every year, I am hoping not to see a polar bear. If I don’t, it will mean that Szklaruk, the provincial conservation officer in charge of the Polar Bear Alert program, and his team have temporarily convinced the bears to stay out of town — a measure of the community’s success coexisting with the biggest land predators on Earth.

It is a deadly serious business. This is late November, the most dangerous time in Churchill. (“Watch for bears if standing around outside before I get there!!” Szklaruk texts me at my hotel before he picks me up.) The bears have been on land now since the summer, fasting, and the ice that will allow them to go back to sea and hunt seals again is late. Hunger and impatience can make a polar bear cranky.

Like Szklaruk, the bears know the wait is almost over. They can smell the cold front that’s on the way even now. The ice will arrive on the shores of Hudson Bay in a few days. Then, they’ll be off like a shot. Szklaruk will be, too. He’s moving to a new position further south in Shoal Lake. His wife, three-year-old daughter and newborn son are already there, but he can’t leave yet. Like so many others in Churchill, his fate is intertwined with that of the bears. “The bears and I are both waiting for the ice,” he tells me. “You bet.”

It’s not just people here in Churchill whose lives are intimately interwoven with those of bears. Whether polar, black or grizzly, bears are recolonizing parts of the planet humans have claimed for our own, and we, as settlers, have gingerly begun to learn to coexist with them. As a result, grizzly and black bear populations are actually growing in some areas of North America, says Michelle McLellan, an independent bear researcher based in British Columbia.

It’s a huge philosophical shift from the days when we saw bears as vermin to be exterminated whenever possible. But coexistence is not straightforward. For one thing, it requires practical measures to make it work, community by community. For another, it means untangling the complex personal emotions we feel when we share space with big predators. There’s both fear and longing.

A polar bear wanders around the Tundra Buggy Lodge at Cape Churchill, overlooking Hudson Bay.
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“It’s part of the human experience to have these big, scary animals in these places,” says Nicholas Scapillati, executive director of the Vancouverbased Grizzly Bear Foundation. “Knowing we’re not the most powerful thing on the planet is good for the human psyche.”

And there are global forces at work, too. Even as we navigate new relationships with bears, we’re ramping up stresses on them. It’s not just that we’re shrinking their space through more industrial activity, human settlement and wilderness recreation. It’s also that we’re impairing the ability of the space that’s left to support bears. Climate heating means fewer salmon in the rivers, for example, less ice on the sea and more intense wildfires, floods and drought. These are all direct hits on what bears need to survive.

The two trends are colliding: more tolerance and more threats. That’s got some scientists questioning the future. As pressures on bears intensify, will bears and humans be able to continue to coexist?

As for Szklaruk, the sun is finally peeking over the horizon, and he’s finishing the day’s first two-hour patrol of Churchill. We haven’t spotted a bear yet. But we’re not going to stop looking. The key to coexisting with
polar bears is constant vigilance.

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Bear Range Data 2022: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. https://www.iucnredlist.org. Downloaded on December 12, 2021. IUCN Red List; Environment and Natural Resources Canada and US Fish and Wildlife Service.
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At 72, Michael Proctor is old enough to remember when most humans and bears — not to mention nature itself — lived in inexorably separate spheres. That began to change across much of the world in the 1960s and ’70s.

“I watched this wave of environmental awareness awaken in us, and that was the beginning of trying to get along with nature instead of dominating it and subduing it,” says Proctor, an independent research scientist based in B.C. who co-chairs the Species Survival Commission’s bear specialist group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Nature is pushing its way into our consciousness and making us more aware. I think we’re responding in a good way.”

His proof lies in the program he began working on nearly two decades ago in the southern Selkirk Mountains area of British Columbia. Lana Ciarniello, a B.C.-based bear biologist who co-chairs IUCN’s human-bear conflict expert team, calls it one of the most successful human-bear coexistence efforts she’s ever seen.

“He’s a one-man crusade,” says Ciarniello, who, along with Proctor, helped write a recent landmark paper on the ecology of human carnivore existence. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it is one of the key works in this fledgling field of study.

The south Selkirks were home to the most isolated North American population of grizzly bears outside of Yellowstone National Park, with a population at last count of about 50 adults straddling the Canada-U.S. border. Proctor found through radio collar tracking and DNA analysis of their hair that their survival was being threatened by human-caused mortality on the edges of the population.

The problem began decades ago as people settled the valleys across the vast landscape from the top of Yellowstone in Montana and Idaho all the way to northern B.C., building towns and roads, laying rail tracks and pushing bears into small patches of the remaining landscape. Grizzly habitat was fractured “like a cracked windshield,” Proctor says. In some places, grizzlies could still make it through. But not in the Selkirks.

“If a bear moved through there, it ended up getting killed,” he says.

A grizzly sow with her two cubs roams a neighborhood along the Chilko River in B.C.’s Interior.
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Proctor set about to get the Selkirks bears, and two other small, isolated populations in the area, moving safely again. That meant humans had to learn to share the landscape with the bears, a process Proctor calls “peaceful coexistence.”

“Its main umbrella idea is to not kill bears that get into conflict quite so readily,” he says.

It involves thinking like a grizzly. First, Proctor identified where the bears would like to be able to cross from their home turf to a neighbouring area. Then, with $58 million in funds — and counting — from conservation organizations, government agencies and private companies, his network patiently secured more than 200 square kilometres of these “connectivity lands.” In some cases, the properties remain working farms, but they are governed by conservation agreements that foster the presence of bears. 

 

‘Knowing we’re not the most powerful thing on the planet is good for the human psyche.’

And since many of the conflicts happen because bears need to eat so much — adding about a third of their body weight during late summer and fall — Proctor launched a campaign to help landowners and municipalities make their properties harder for hungry bears to get into. The municipality of Creston, B.C., put electric fencing around its landfill in 2010, for example. Regionally, more than 200 electric fences went up around fruit trees and other foodstuffs, and about 100 residents borrowed bear-resistant garbage bins.

“Now, we can hardly keep up with fencing demand,” Proctor says.

Then, he finessed the art of intervening immediately when bears showed an inclination to behave in ways that might eventually be a problem for humans, an aversion-therapy practice pioneered in Montana. It could work for a bear feeding on the scavenged carcass of a dead cow, for example, because the bear is only mimicking what it would do with meat in the wild. It’s a different story for a bear breaking into a building to kill livestock, which has reached a higher level of boldness.

If a bear was a candidate for early intervention, Proctor and his team darted it, put a radio collar on it and put it in a modified culvert trap that serves as a grizzly jail for a couple of days. Then they released it within its home range, while bombarding it with unpleasant noises and sometimes rubber bullets. Thirty-five bears — 18 females and 17 males — that would likely otherwise have been shot got that treatment between 2003 and 2017. Of those, 26 were still alive and had remained out of conflict when the collars dropped off a few years after capture.

A young bear scavenges for dead salmon under a pier.
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“We slowly did it, one bear at a time,” Proctor says.

Finally, Proctor tackled the problem of grizzlies killed in the backcountry because people surprised them. Often, conflicts happened because trails ran right through prime huckleberry bush. Proctor identified every main bear foraging area in the south Selkirks and neighbouring Purcell Mountains and helped establish limits on when people could use trails during bears’ feeding times.

That problem is far from solved, but it all added up. Over the years, fewer grizzlies have been killed by humans, a trend Proctor tracked in a recent academic paper. More grizzlies moved among isolated patches of habitat, breeding as they went. The outlook for the south Selkirks grizzlies has improved so much that the IUCN’s red list has downgraded their risk, calling them vulnerable to extinction rather than endangered. It’s a direct result of Proctor’s work.

Underpinning it all was education for landowners and provincial conservation officers. Nervous at first, they became converts to coexistence when the new practices panned out.

“Everybody loves nature, just about. Your farmer, your rancher,” Proctor says. “They don’t want to have to kill bears to make money. They want to be able to coexist.”

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Here in Churchill, polar bears are present even when they’re not. They loom large in the public psyche, especially at this time of year. Signs at the airport warn visitors to be on constant guard and avoid walking the streets alone. To view a bear, most tourists take pricey guided group tours out of town in bear-proofed vehicles mounted on high tundra-ready wheels.

“You’d have to be silly not to be scared of them,” Szklaruk says, as we take yet another patrol around town in his truck. “You have to give them that respect.”

The fact that polar bears show up in this town of fewer than 1,000 residents is not a coincidence. Churchill is squeezed into an arm of land between the shores of Hudson Bay on one side and the Churchill River on the other. That river is one of the early places to freeze in the fall, so as the weather cools, bears congregate here by the dozens, waiting for first ice so they can hunt seals again. The town happens to be on their way.

At one time, a bear found near town would be shot. Now, bears are not only deemed threatened under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, but they are also the foundation of an international tourism industry that makes up more than half the town’s wages. Killing a polar bear is a last resort.

Instead, Szklaruk and his team shoo away any bear discovered near town, scaring it with cracker shells shot from guns and with sirens, horns and lights. Bears that won’t stay away are captured and held for a month in a bunker near the airport that was converted into a 28-cell bear jail in the 1980s. After their jail time, bears are either immobilized and airlifted as far as 50 kilometres north or released away from town. Officers have jailed more than 2,000 bears over the years.

But as omnipresent as the polar bear seems in Churchill — the bathroom of the hotel where I’m staying even features fluffy fresh towels fashioned into the shape of a sitting polar bear — its continued existence in this part of the North is in question.

On this day, the bears have been off the ice and fasting for 153 days and counting, explains Kt Miller, a senior manager at Polar Bears International, as she shows me around the conservation organization’s bright-blue interpretive centre on the town’s main drag. During the 1980s, before the ice melted so early and formed so late, the average was 107 days. And prospects of freshly hunted seal are still days away.

“They’re now fasting a month longer than their grandparents did,” Miller says. 

Bear watching in Churchill is a key economic driver.
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That’s led to an unrelenting cascade of negative effects on the polar bears of western Hudson Bay, one of the most southerly of the world’s 19 subpopulations. Pregnant females weigh less than they did in the 1960s, and all females are shorter, according to long-term research by biologists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher. Fewer are producing young. Those that produce young have fewer cubs. Survival of those cubs has dropped like a stone, and the ability of a yearling cub to survive without its mother has vanished, which further impairs the mother’s ability to become pregnant again. The population has shrunk by about a third since the mid 1990s.

And the future looks grim, here and elsewhere in the Arctic. There’s only so much fasting a polar bear can do. Eventually, the bears of western Hudson Bay will be too thin to have any young, according to a recent study by biologists Péter Molnár and Stephanie Penk of the University of Toronto, and others.

“If you have a population that can’t reproduce, you have a population that can’t survive, right?” Penk tells me later when I reach her in Texas by Zoom.

By the turn of the century, unless carbon trajectories change drastically, all but the most northerly polar bears on Earth will be dead, the victims of climate heating, her study found. In Churchill, they will be just a memory.

Tourists in Churchill are aware that this global icon of climate change is in peril. They fly here in droves to see one in the wild before it’s too late. Researchers call the treks “last-chance tourism” or “doom tourism.”

“The irony of us emitting greenhouse gases to go visit species that we’re essentially killing by emitting greenhouse gases is very thick,” says Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair in the Human and Policy Dimensions of Climate Change and a science director for the climate change research network ArcticNet.

Here in Churchill, I still haven’t spotted a bear. Miller offers to drive me around the bear-resistant garbage facility. It opened in 2005, after the town shut down the dump where hungry bears once congregated to feast on refuse, and is a key to more congenial relations between humans and bears. Carefully, we go outside to her truck, scanning for anything that moves. Miller carries bear spray, which, she tells me coolly, is highly effective against polar bear attacks.

Down the highway we drive, toward the airport. Past the garbage facility, where a bear was sighted recently. Down a backroad to where Miller knows bears often lounge. Nothing. And then around to the polar bear holding facility, a vast, corrugated metal structure whose hulking shape is reminiscent of a sleeping bear, stark against the expansive sky. In fact, a supersized sleeping bear is painted on its front face, a reminder of how the animals dominate the iconography of the town.

Bears are inside the jail today, but not outside. A busload of tourists — among the last of this season — has just pulled up, and the excited crowds are milling around the structure, taking selfies and grinning.

Miller and I cruise around a little more. No bear. Yet.

An adult grizzly marks its territory at a wilderness lodge on a Taku River tributary in Northern B.C.
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Even when the will to coexist with bears is strong, the practice is hard.

“There’s the idea of the bears on the landscape, and then there’s the reality of it,” says Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia and another co-author on the paper with Proctor and Ciarniello, adding: “It’s not always Kumbaya.”

Bears are moving into shared landscapes a lot faster than humans are adapting to cope with their presence. And then what?

“You just don’t want to be standing next to a grizzly bear. Like, there’s no two ways about that. It’s just not a good outcome,” Lamb says. “That’s just a universal truth.”

The deterrents Proctor has been experimenting with haven’t yet made their way to all the communities that could use them. For example, Lamb launched a fund last year to help landowners in the Elk Valley area of southeastern B.C. remove unwanted apple trees along with their vast quantities of bear-tempting calories. This year, he already has a waiting list.

“I’m optimistic that things will get better,” Lamb says, “because I think we’re at the low point where there’s a lot of bears near people and we don’t have the tools to manage them at scale.”

It’s not just tools, though. It’s attitudes. Over the years, Ciarniello, of the IUCN, has tracked people’s ambivalence to bears across many countries.

“We want to know bears exist, but we want them only in this area here and then, ‘it’s my choice to go see them.’ And we want our parks to be a little bit like zoos, but without fences, because that’s cruel,” she says, chuckling. “We seem to have our heads a bit backwards.”

Ciarniello cites a bear-hazard assessment she conducted in Pemberton Meadows, B.C., north of the ski resort town of Whistler. The agricultural community sits in a river-threaded lowlands separating two threatened grizzly populations, the Chilcotin and the Squamish-Lillooet. The Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative wanted to know how to get bears to cross the divide in order to shore up both populations.

Ciarniello went from ranch to ranch, surveying attitudes toward grizzlies. People were enthusiastic about having the carnivores in the area again. So Ciarniello is designing strategies for movement corridors spanning the lowlands, including proposing some conservation easements. Last summer, to residents’ delight, a grizzly sow showed up with her two cubs. But then she stayed. 

For one bear to coexist for 14 years with humans, 29 other bears perished. Without humans to contend with, by contrast, only four would die.

The upshot is that some of the landowners now want the bear and her cubs gone. How can they let their kids play outside with grizzlies in the neighbourhood?

“Now you see the attitudes shift from really positive to more negative. And how do we keep it positive?” Ciarniello asks. “How do we get in that acceptance piece that coexistence needs?”

That’s an idea Shauna Yeomans-Lindstrom, senior land guardian liaison in the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, has been exploring in her community, which straddles the borders of B.C., Yukon and Alaska.

Past generations of her people lived in harmony with grizzlies. But the development of Alaska, residential schools and other colonial practices led to a rupture with Tlingit traditions. Now, with a grant from the Grizzly Bear Foundation, Yeomans-Lindstrom is studying traditional knowledge gathered from past and present Elders to rediscover the ways of the grizzly.

“We have some pretty significant grizzly bear history in our watershed, and that ties back to traditional knowledge,” she says.

For example, the community has a weir where fisheries technicians monitor Chinook salmon carcasses, measuring them and taking scales to track the health of the fish. Technicians have begun simply giving grizzlies their space, rather than scaring them away with rubber bullets and loud noises. At a grizzly-viewing camp downriver from the weir, some noticed that bears communicate with each other using subtle body language. So they’re experimenting with subtlety, too — simply leaning forward when a bear gets too close, or perhaps gently standing up as the first response.

“It’s putting that responsibility back on ourselves and re-educating ourselves and acknowledging how much space and entitlement we take up,” Yeomans-Lindstrom says. “It’s changing the perspective into, wow, how do I be respectful to bears when I’m in their territory instead of just automatically thinking they should know how to respect us.”

But people in her community are thinking far beyond mere tolerance of grizzlies. They learn from them, too, tracking the plants the animals use to heal themselves from sickness. And they honour grizzlies for feeding the land with nitrogen-rich salmon carcasses, keeping the ecosystem healthy.

Most powerful of all, to Yeomans-Lindstrom, the community has begun the task of rediscovering the ancient migration routes of the Tlingit people — left untravelled for decades — only to find that the grizzlies had kept the trails open for them.

“We were able to acknowledge that we got these trails by following the animals,” Yeomans Lindstrom says. “It’s kind of like a metaphor.”

At the end of summer and the beginning of fall, grizzlies feast on salmon that return to the Taku watershed to reproduce.
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It’s not just human who are changing to coexist with bears. Bears, like so many other creatures, have made profound adaptations to coexist with humans, including where they live, what they eat and when they sleep.

David Gummer, a wildlife management specialist with Parks Canada who is helping develop the agency’s human-wildlife coexistence program, says as he did his academic work, he began to understand just how much animals have altered their behaviour.

“I started out studying what I thought were natural behaviours and relationships with other species but gradually came to realize, more and more, there was this pervasive influence of people on everything,” he says. 

In fact, the current distribution of bears in North America is a relic of human conflict with them over time, notes McLellan, the independent bear scientist in B.C. Take grizzlies. Before Europeans arrived, grizzlies roamed from Mexico to Labrador, across the Great Plains and into California.

Now, the grizzly is extinct in Mexico, endangered in the lower 48 states, extirpated in Eastern Canada and the Prairies and under threat in several tiny pockets of southern B.C. where the species hangs on. Most of the continent’s grizzlies are now confined to Alaska and the western parts of northern Canada.

The black bear has fared better. Although it was hunted remorselessly, and often for bounty, throughout North America by European settlers, its numbers have rebounded and are increasing in most of the states and provinces where they’re found. There are twice as many black bears as any other bear on the planet, and the IUCN considers it a species of “least concern.”

Because of that, black bears are not intensively studied in Canada, Lamb says. “We just say, yeah, black bears are managed in British Columbia as if they’re endlessly abundant and nothing could go wrong, which may or may not be true.”

‘There’s the idea of the bears on the landscape, and then there’s the reality of it. It’s not always Kumbaya.’

But apart from affecting how many bears there are and where they live, we’ve also forced some of them to look for new sources of food, a fact made explicit in the very cells of their bodies. McLellan cites the work of a colleague who looked at historical bone collagen from B.C. grizzlies from the first half of the 20th century, compared with more modern ones. Salmon made up as much as a third of the diet of the historical grizzlies. For modern bears from the same area, it was between zero and one per cent. The difference: a massive hydroelectric project that cut grizzlies off from their key food.

And we’re inducing some animals to shift basic behaviour. The grizzlies that successfully recolonize humandominated landscapes survive because they become nocturnal, Ciarniello, Proctor and Lamb found in their paper. It looked at the fates of 469 grizzlies in British Columbia from 1979 to 2019.

Even that nocturnality was not enough. Their study found that populations near humans kept going only because a steady stream of “demographic rescue” bears came from away to bump up the numbers. For one bear to coexist for 14 years with humans, 29 other bears perished. Without humans to contend with, by contrast, only four would die.

“What I find interesting is how many bears have to die for one to coexist,” Ciarniello says.

And the long-term trends are muddy, at least for grizzlies. Will North American grizzlies go the way of those in, say, Italy, where populations are rarely even noticed because they are so thoroughly nocturnal, so physically tiny, so uncommon, so deferential? In other words, are they adapting, or simply marching toward extirpation?

“It’s a bleak future when you really start to think it out and piece it together,” says Ciarniello.

Here in Churchill, as I near the end of my visit, the temperature has plummeted. A storm moved in overnight and snowplows have been working all morning piling snow in high banks. I trudge the streets, glasses fogged above my mask, hood up, trying to be vigilant. I’m acutely aware that I’m breaking one of Churchill’s cardinal safety rules by wandering around on my own. I’ve spent the morning at the Parks Canada visitor centre learning more about polar bears and the key message is hitting home: They are superb hunters. If they’re after you, you won’t know until it’s too late.

But still, I see no bear.

I scan the roadsides on the way to the airport, safely ensconced in a vehicle. Nothing. I peer all along the runway as we taxi in the plane and far off into the distance. No bear. As we rise in the air, I’m still searching. I can’t seem to help myself. And then I see the bay. The ice has at last started to form, the polar bear’s bridge between death and life. Maybe, instead of loping through town, the bears are pacing the beach, willing the freeze to hurry up so they can at last leave this place.

This story is from the May/June 2022 Issue

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