Polar bear watchers race against global warming

There's something vaguely disturbing about the George Hamilton tan sported by the flight attendant on the Convair 580 prop that's buzzing into the Great White North. Ditto, the declaration from the Churchill office worker that she's wearing flip-flops in mid-October. And the researcher who shows up at the local bakery in his shirtsleeves.

This is, after all, winter's eve in the Canadian Sub-Arctic, when the vast waters of Hudson Bay solidify, and the world's southernmost population of polar bears ventures back out onto the ice for a blissful seven months of gorging on the ringed seals that dwell below its crust.

The so-called bear season in October and November is also the time when 7,500 visitors converge on this Arctic outpost of 1,100 hearty souls to witness the annual migration of the magnificent white behemoths.

Interest in the tours is keen, in part, because of bleak predictions that global warming could cause the world's polar bear population to shrink by two-thirds in the next 50 years. As the bears' primary hunting grounds, polar ice is crucial to their survival. But after a 20-year warming trend, Hudson Bay is melting an average of three weeks earlier, scientists say. And it's freezing later, which keeps the bears land-bound longer. On terra firma from July to November, they grow hungry and skinny in their "walking hibernation" until their return to the ice to bulk up over the winter and spring.

The Western Hudson Bay population, the most studied group of bears, dropped from 1,140 to 950 in the past decade. The average weight of females is down from 583 pounds to 418 pounds, which has negative reproductive consequences. Moreover, the mortality rate for bears between birth and age 5 is up 50% because of the shortened hunting time on the ice, says Robert Buchanan, president of Polar Bears International, a group that supports research and education.

"There's a difference between weather and climate, but I've never experienced it this warm for this long in all the years I've been coming here," says Buchanan, a 20-year bear-season resident of Churchill. "Is it disturbing? Yes. Polar bears are the sentinel species for global climate change. They're the canary in the coal mine."

Who's in the cages?

Even before polar bears became the poster child for global warming, visitors had been coming to Churchill to view them. In 1979, the first "tundra buggy" — a converted school bus on 5-ton military axles — rolled out into the bears' migratory path. Today, 18 vehicles, which resemble double-wide school buses balanced on 5-foot-high monster-truck tires, lumber over the tundra trawling for bears. In addition, the two companies that operate these tours maintain seasonal tundra lodges, which consist of linked buggies with eating and sleeping quarters.

"The rules: No feeding and no baiting," announces driver/guide Marc Hebert, as a tour group boards his coach for the first day of a two-day safari. "We have the privilege of seeing these animals in their natural habitat. We're the ones in a cage."

The vehicles are permitted to roam in a roughly 10-square-mile area. At first glance, the terrain appears barren, but closer inspection reveals a colorful mélange of purples, yellows, orange and russet lichens and other squat but hearty flora. It's a landscape that is restful on the eyes, even as the sun delivers glancing blows to the retina.

Warm weather makes for lethargic bears, though, and they're not making much of an appearance at the moment. But other wildlife does. There's a lone caribou separated from the herd, chickenlike arctic ptarmigan and snow-white arctic hare crouching under bushy willows.

Hebert hefts the binoculars and peers through the buggy's panoramic windshield.

"Over to the left of the lake, is that a rock or is it a bear?" he asks.

"Do rocks move?" someone responds from the rear of the coach.

A mother and cub are visible in the distance, and Hebert prods the groaning vehicle over rough ground in pursuit of a closer view. This being nature, however, there are no guaranteed sightings. Hebert, who's in his ninth season as a tundra guide, has seen as many as 24 bears in a single day. But quality trumps quantity, he says. "What's better? To see 10 bears lying down or two bears on their hind legs sparring?"

The 21 passengers, most of them Europeans, are on a packaged tour, which is the most popular way to encounter bears in Churchill. Some, like Celia Crook, a retired hospital worker from Norwich, England, are seeking a "spiritual connection" with the creatures. Some, like Mary Duffy, 34, of London, simply have a "thing" for bears. And some, like Jens Otto of Dusseldorf, Germany, relish rare experiences in remote places.

The accommodations are far from luxurious. The restaurants are mostly mediocre. Service can be lackluster. And the $3,800 or so Otto spent on this five-night trip could have bought a month on a beach in Spain. But he takes it in stride. "I wanted to see bears in their natural habitat, and since you can't follow them onto the ice, this is the only way to go," he says.

Time was, when spotting bears was as simple as taking a spin by the garbage dump east of town. But that was before heightened ecological sensitivities prompted officials to do away with the dump and its incinerator two years ago. (Since then, public waste has been piling up in an abandoned military warehouse.)

"I had a buddy who drove the (garbage) truck. The bears would tackle the vehicle trying to ride in it," recalls Sheldon Olivier, a 15-year Churchill resident and expedition guide.

Locals find fun where they can

Olivier is behind the wheel of an old school bus, conducting a tour of Churchill, though frankly, there's not a whole lot to see. Pre-fabricated metal buildings line a main drag that ends abruptly at the port, where a monolithic grain elevator dominates the skyline. Commercial establishments, some of which spring to life only during bear season, serve multiple functions. The biweekly arrival of fresh fruit and vegetables at Gypsy's Bakery has locals lining up. The front desk at the Iceberg Inn doubles as a Sears mail-order outlet. The primary retail emporium, the Northern, sells everything from apples to all-terrain vehicles. Bulletin board notices there announce karaoke at the Legion hall on Friday and urge "Let's Bring Curling Back!!!" In Churchill, you have to make your own fun, advises one resident.

Outside town, the arboreal forest, a mix of wind-scarred dwarf spruce and tamarack, nudges the bay shore, where giant granite boulders break the earth's surface like compound fractures. Just 30 miles north of here, the tree line vanishes altogether.

The main man-made attraction on the city tour is the 28-cell holding facility popularly known as the polar bear jail in a Quonset hut on the grounds of a former military base east of town. It is ringed by bear traps, giant tin can-like contraptions, baited with seal-oil-soaked burlap. Conservation personnel armed with cracker shells patrol the town to drive errant bears into unpopulated areas. Three-time offenders get locked up for the season. Others are flown to remote territory and released.

Still, daytime sightings in town are unusual. And there hasn't been a bear-related fatality since 1983, when a resident who had salvaged some meat from the freezer of a fire-damaged restaurant had an unfortunate run-in with one of the sharp-nosed creatures. But there have been many close calls, says Buchanan. A polar bear on a mission is a formidable thing. "I've seen them come through walls," he says.

In the past, "any time a resident had a problem with a bear, there was nothing you could do but deal with it yourself," Olivier says. Consequently, a man-vs.-beast attitude predominated. That changed in 1985 with the town's Polar Bear Alert program, which instituted a 24-hour hotline that summons conservation officials to deal with the animals.

"There's been a shift in mentality," Mayor Michael Spence says. "There's a lot of pride. The bears are important to this community."

And they're important to visitors who have traveled such long distances in hopes of glimpsing them.

Day 2 for the group on Hebert's tundra buggy is overcast and cooler, signaling better viewing conditions. The guide halts the vehicle at the edge of a pond where two bears rear up onto their hind legs, swatting at one another in a playful fight before collapsing onto the tundra.

The sightseers toast their good fortune with Kaluha-laced coffee, as Hebert recaps the day's visual take.

"I'm glad it worked out," he says. "You've seen a mother and a cub. You've seen bears lounging and running. You've seen bears sparring. You've seen it all. Now let's go home."

E-mail jeclark@usatoday.com