Canadian Press Via Sean Kilpatrick/AP, File
Polar bears in West Hudson Bay, at the southern tip of Canada’s Arctic, continue to die in high numbers, according to a new government study on land carnivores. Females and bear cubs are having a particularly difficult time.
Researchers surveyed Western Hudson Bay, home of the town of Churchill, dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, by air in 2021 and estimated it had 618 moons, compared to 842 in 2016 when they were last surveyed.
“The actual decline is much larger than I expected,” said Andrew Derocher, a biology professor at the University of Alberta who has studied Hudson Bay polar bears for nearly four decades. Derocher was not involved in the research.
The authors found that since the 1980s, bear numbers in the area have dropped by about 50%. The ice necessary for their survival is disappearing.
Polar bears rely on arctic sea ice (frozen ocean water), which shrinks during warmer summer temperatures and regenerates during the long winter months. They use it for hunting, perching near holes in the thick ice to spot their favorite food, seals that come for air. But as the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world due to climate change, sea ice cracks earlier in the year and takes longer to freeze in the fall.
This has caused many polar bears living in the Arctic to have less ice to live on, hunt, and breed on.
Polar bears aren’t just critical predators in the Arctic. For years, before climate change began to affect people around the world, they were also the best-known facet of climate change.
The density of mortality in young bears and females in West Hudson Bay is worrying, the researchers said.
“These are the bear species we’ve always predicted will be affected by changes in the environment,” said lead author Stephen Atkinson, who has studied polar bears for over 30 years.
Young bears need energy to grow and cannot survive long without adequate food, and female bears struggle as they expend too much energy feeding and raising cubs.
“It certainly raises ongoing viability issues,” Derocher said. Said. “This is the reproductive engine of the population.”
“The reproductive capacity of polar bears in West Hudson Bay will decrease because you have fewer young bears surviving and becoming adults,” Atkinson said.
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