In northern Manitoba, black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears are now living together

Awwww. Image: Getty.

North America’s three bear species – black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears – don’t typically live in the same place. But in Wapusk National Park, on the west coast of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, we caught all three bears on camera – for the first time.

My colleagues and I began studying the bears in Wapusk in 2011, after more polar bears than expected began visiting new field camps in the park. We used remote cameras – a widespread, economical and non-invasive tool for studying wildlife – to find out why and when the polar bears were visiting these camps.

The cameras picked up more than 366 visits by polar bears to the camps in five years. They also detected other bears.

A bevy of bears

Wapusk is best known for its polar bears. They come ashore in the summer and autumn when the sea ice in Hudson Bay melts. Some stay for the winter to den in the permafrost where they give birth. What we see on the cameras reflects that pattern.

But Wapusk also lies along the northern edge of the boreal forest, where black bears are well established. We saw them too, but we were surprised that their visits to our most southerly cameras, on the Owl River, were almost as numerous as those by polar bears.

Grizzly bears visited all three study sites along the coast of Wapusk National Park. Image: Douglas Clark/creative commons.

What was new to us were the grizzlies. It wasn’t just one or two transient bears, but several, and we suspect at least one of them may be denning there.

Barren-ground grizzly bears have been expanding their range across the Arctic in recent decades. In Wapusk, they’ve been increasingly frequent since the 1990s, and have even shown up in the nearby town of Churchill.

Ecosystem convergence

There’s much our observations don’t tell us, but they are significant for conservation efforts and, more fundamentally, for understanding what to do with these new ecological insights.

Three dynamic ecosystems – forest, tundra and ocean – converge at Wapusk, and all are changing quickly as the Arctic warms.

What we’ve seen in Wapusk is consistent with how researchers expect northern carnivore populations to respond to climate change. The waking life of all bear species is governed by their need to accumulate fat stores for the next hibernation, so this overlap is most likely a response to changes in the availability of bear foods. Which foods, however, we don’t yet know.

Three polar bears walk past a camera trap in Wapusk National Park. Image: Douglas Clark/creative commons.

We also don’t know how these species interact with each other, but we predict that grizzlies will benefit most since they dominate both other species elsewhere.

Grizzly bears have displaced and eaten black bears and polar bears in other places, and polar-grizzly hybrids have been documented in the Northwest Territories. It’s clear that the potential for hybridization exists in western Hudson Bay too.

Polar bears and grizzly bears face conservation challenges in many parts of Canada. Learning more about they way they interact with each other – and their surroundings – would probably tell us more about why they are now inhabiting the same place.

Controversial change

But how might we use this information?

When environmental changes occur in national parks, they often become controversial. People often assume the conditions present when the park was established, or the status quo, are “baselines” that must be protected, even though they may just be snapshots in ecological time.

Change has become increasingly central in ecological theory, and its implications have produced heated debate within the conservation community.

Black bears are well established in the boreal forest of Wapusk National Park. Image: Douglas Clark/creative commons.

This matters for the grizzly because its expansion into the Arctic has been portrayed as a threat to polar bears. Some argue such a threat should be removed.

In 1998, when I worked in Wapusk, I was told by a manager to get rid of the first grizzly we saw. (I didn’t.)

Such actions might not be wise since the long and complex evolutionary relationship between grizzlies and polar bears suggests their populations have, at times, benefited from the other.

Instead of looking at this new range overlap as a risk to any of the bears, my colleagues and I think it should be viewed as an ecological response to environmental change that needs to be better understood.


What’s at stake?

While locals may not be surprised by this scientific observation of the three bears, it is a novel situation that we can learn from – and one that matters beyond northern Manitoba.

Climate change will continue to move species around and create new combinations of them. It’s no easy task for wildlife or park managers to determine which environmental changes are desirable and which aren’t.

Wapusk, however, is a co-managed park that aims to integrate scientific and traditional knowledge with human values. It is equipped for addressing these hard questions. And the question of how to navigate increasing environmental variability more effectively – while recognising the stakes local people have in these conservation decisions – is the biggest challenge environmental managers face today.

This particular story of the three bears isn’t over, and we don’t know how it will end. Consequently, we need to bring a heavy dose of humility to answering the scientific and societal questions the three bears have handed us.

The Conversation

Douglas Clark, Centennial Chair in Human Dimensions of Environment & Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.