Add human graves to the list of things that attract polar bears to communities

A report last week that a polar bear dug a human cadaver out of a coffin buried in the cemetery on the west coast of Hudson Bay did not get the media attention it perhaps deserved: it takes the term ‘grisly’ to a new level.

Early arrival of polar bears at Nunavut hamlet prompts early monitoring: One bear digs into burial plot at Arviat cemetery (NunatsiaqOnline, 29 August 2016).


Quotes from the story, a map, and comments on problem bears below.

Arviat with Churchill_Rankin and Whale Cove_PolarBearScience

From that report:

The polar bears have arrived early in Arviat this year, prompting the Nunavut hamlet and local wildlife department to step up protection measures for the Kivalliq community of 3,000.

Polar bears typically begin their migration from southern Hudson Bay north along the Kivalliq coast in the early fall.

But through the month of August, residents have reported a number of run-ins with bears.

Earlier this month, hamlet officials got a call about a grisly disturbance just outside the community — a polar bear had dug up part of Arviat’s cemetery.

“They have disturbed the gravesite before,” said Michael Cohen, the hamlet’s acting senior administrative office. “In this case, one got a little further into it. The bear reached the coffin, and there was an exposed body part.

Officials weren’t made aware of the incident until the polar bear had already left the area. Cohen said he issued a work order to have the gravesite covered and re-landscaped.

But it prompted the hamlet to bring in its polar bear monitor a month early.

Using rubber bullets and bear bangers to scare polar bears off, Leo Ikakhik usually starts his nightly patrols of the community in mid-September through the autumn and early winter.

And now the Government of Nunavut has also hired a second night guard to patrol

Arviat’s streets, working out of the GN’s local wildlife office.

The calls [reporting polar bear sightings] have increased and have been more than normal for this time of year,” said Savikataaq.

“Normally we see that increase in October and November.”

Savikataaq couldn’t say what is drawing the bears so early in the year; he said it doesn’t appear to be related to weather or ice conditions.” [my bold]

Read the rest here. Note that there is no mention of the condition of the bears involved, starving or otherwise: polar bears are always looking for food, no matter how fat they are.

My post earlier this year about polar bears that come ashore in winter included a list of attractants know to draw polar bears ashore:

“…bears are attracted by caches of frozen meat, odors of cooking food, food fed to dogs, the dogs themselves, stored food, garbage, and perhaps surprisingly, sewage – as well as man-made petroleum products and other industrial material (oils and lubricants, vinyl seats and plastic-coated cables), antifreeze and insulation (Truett 1993).”

Add cadavers, human graves, and cemeteries to this list.

But if sea ice conditions do not explain why there are so many more problem bears in Arviat this early in the season (since Western Hudson Bay breakup in 2016 was later than usual, and bears were said to be abundant and in good shape) – and given that abundant polar bears  have been a problem here since at least 2013 – the answer comes down to:

1) Food sources that polar bears have learned to count on (including regular “diversionary feeding” – seal meat provided to keep bears out of the community proper, see photo below from 2013 – as well as the community dump;

2) Polar bears displaced north from Churchill by the zero-tolerance attitude of conservation officers after the near-fatal attack in 2013;

3) Shift of polar bears north from Churchill area or south from Foxe Basin (i.e., more bears locally);

4) More Hudson Bay polar bears overall [the last WHB count was in 2011, last Foxe Basin count was completed in 2010 (Lunn et la. 2016; Stapleton et al. 2014, 2016)];

5) All of the above, in combination?


ArviatBear2_570 diversionary feeding_2013 Arviat conservation

2013: Seal meat encased in ice set out by wildlife officers outside of Arviat to keep polar bears out of the community in 2013, called “diversionary feeding.”

Lunn, N.J., Servanty, S., Regehr, E.V., Converse, S.J., Richardson, E. and Stirling, I. 2016. Demography of an apex predator at the edge of its range – impacts of changing sea ice on polar bears in Hudson Bay. Ecological Applications, in press. DOI: 10.1890/15-1256

Stapleton S., Atkinson, S., Hedman, D., and Garshelis, D. 2014. Revisiting Western Hudson Bay: using aerial surveys to update polar bear abundance in a sentinel population. Biological Conservation 170:38-47.

Stapleton, S., Peacock, E., and Garshelis, D. 2016. Aerial surveys suggest long-term stability in the seasonally ice-free Foxe Basin (Nunavut) polar bear population. Marine Mammal Science 32(1):181-201.

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