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.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.