Grizzlies Encroaching on Polar Bear Country

March 16, 2005 — -- The polar bears of the far north, already suffering from food shortages that appear to be the result of global warming, may have to make room for a fierce competitor. Grizzly bears, among the baddest dudes on the continent, may be invading the high Arctic.

If so, it's hard to say who will come out on top because polar bears aren't exactly slouches when it comes to defending their turf.

But it will mean a resource that is already in decline, mainly seals, will be in even greater demand as these behemoths fight it out on the frozen shores of islands that are so far north that the northern lights are actually to the south.

We're talking 74 degrees north and above, so far up there that it's really on top of the world. Until the last few years it was an endlessly frozen landscape, but warming temperatures have reduced the floating ice that normally affords polar bears a base from which to capture seals when they surface for air. Some researchers believe the giant white bears are already in decline, and face a possibly bleak future.

So the last thing they need is competition.

Claw Prints Tip Off Researchers

The latest evidence that grizzlies are heading north comes from the University of Alberta in Canada and a team of scientists who weren't even looking for bears when they made a startling discovery.

"It was just serendipity," says Jonathan Doupé, a geologist at the university who spent last summer on Melville Island, a chunk of real estate where no humans live. It's so desolate it's hard to imagine how anything survives. The Arctic Circle is 600 miles to the south.

Doupé was there to study geology, not wildlife.

Doupé and John England, a geology professor at the university, had stopped last July at a dinky structure near the south shore of Melville, appropriately named "Polar Bear Cabin," when they noticed something rather unusual. Not far from the cabin, which is maintained by the Canadian government for researchers to seek shelter from all sorts of things, including polar bears, the scientists noticed some footprints in the spongy ground.

"Our helicopter pilot was with us, and he has flown many expeditions into northern Canada, so he knew what the tracks were," Doupé says.

The tracks revealed extended claws, characteristic of grizzlies, not polar bears, he adds. The tracks appeared fresh and "it seemed like they went toward the cabin," Doupé says.

The scientists examined the sides of the cabin, and sure enough, they found brown hairs. Color is not always indicative of species, however, so when they returned to Alberta they turned the hairs over to other sources, including a wildlife genetics lab in British Columbia. The results were unmistakable, Doupé says. DNA analysis reveals that the hairs came from a grizzly, not a polar bear.

The results confirmed a siting on Melville Island that England had made a year earlier. He saw and photographed a bear that sure looked like a grizzly, with the characteristic hump atop its shoulders, but until the DNA work came back, he couldn't say for sure. It is believed to have been the northernmost grizzly ever seen, and may have been the same bear that was seen earlier on the sea ice south of Melville. Mitch Taylor, a wildlife biologist for the Northwest Territories, tranquilized and measured a grizzly running across the ice in 1991.

"It was a 700 pound male," Doupé says. "There was no sign it was having a tough time up there."

Cubs at Risk

Although not quite as far north, other grizzlies have been spotted on Victoria Island just south of Melville, despite the fact that recent scientific literature suggests that grizzlies were limited to mainland Canada and had not crossed dozens of miles across sea ice to reach the islands.

But, Doupé notes, it's not clear at this point if grizzlies are moving north, or if more are being seen because more researchers are venturing into that region, believed to be rich with mineral resources.

"Was it just an observer effect," he asks, or are the big brown bears really moving north? And if so, why?

No one knows yet, but it could be that substantial increase in human habitation to the south is convincing the bears to head for safer ground. And Doupé says global warming may be making it possible for the grizzlies to extend their range to the north, something the polar bears clearly don't need.

Especially the young ones.

Grizzlies, like polar bears, like to dine on bear cubs, regardless of their shading. The carcasses of polar bear cubs have been found in grizzly dens, he says.

Elsewhere in Canada, grizzlies have shown an adaptability to life in the far north. They have learned how to hunt seals on the ice and behave pretty much like polar bears.

But if they've decided to make Melville Island their home, they've picked a pretty tough place to live.

There has been no human settlement for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found sites where paleo-Eskimos lived a long time ago, but they moved south in search of an easier life, no doubt.

The land is barren except for an occasional low-lying shrub and patches of grass and wildflowers. There are no trees. The temperature rarely climbs above freezing.

When Doupé and England were there last July, it snowed.

There is precious little there to sustain life of any sort. What could possibly have convinced grizzlies to move in?

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.