A serious expression will come over the faces of hunters and elders when they speak with us about our upcoming departure by dog-team for the village of Clyde River. “The bears are coming out of their dens now with their cubs. Also the male bears are wanting to mate,” one elder told me. “This makes for a doubly-dangerous situation,” he warned.
The east coast of Baffin Island between Qikiqtarjuaq and Clyde River has one of the highest concentrations of polar bears anywhere in the world. The elders have warned us about hungry polar bears that may want to enter our camp in search of food. In this part of the world, humans and bears share the top of the food chain.
In winter female polar bears build their dens in areas of deep snow either on land or on sea ice. During the five to seven months the mother bears spend in their dens, they will not eat. When the bears finally emerge from their dens, they must successfully hunt seals to survive.
Polar bears depend on good ice conditions to hunt seals. If the ice forms later in the fall or breaks up earlier in the spring, polar bears go longer without food. If mother bears are too skinny, they can have fewer and smaller cubs that are less likely to survive.
Some of the hunters in Qikiqtarjuaq told us about two dead polar bears they found. The bears were very skinny at the time they died.
There have also been more cases in the last few years of hungry bears entering communities or approaching people. The day after the expedition base camp crew left Pangnirtung to fly to Qikiqtarjuaq, a polar bear had to be shot inside the city limits of Pangnirtung.
Not only is this an unfortunate end for that particular polar bear, but it also means one fewer bear the local people of Baffin will be allowed to hunt. Defense kills count towards the total yearly quota for bears on Baffin. Guided hunts bring a much-needed source of income to local hunters and help maintain traditional arts like dog-teaming and land travel.
As the local people witness the polar bears becoming more skinny, some have suggested a feeding program to keep the bear population healthy. This idea has many problems, however, both ethical and logistical and is unlikely to be implemented.
The Global Warming 101 Expedition Team is grateful that landscapes exist where large predators like polar bears still roam. We cannot help, however, but feel a bit of trepidation at the thought of traveling through their habitat. We will, of course, hope if we do see any polar bears it will be from a great distance and they will be trotting away from us. Just in case, we will be pitching our tents in a close group, surrounding the tents with our dogs and keeping our noise-makers and other bear-deterrents close at hand.
(Source: ACIA, 2004)