New information on the fatal polar bear attack at Arviat, Western Hudson Bay

Additional information is available regarding the fatal mauling of a young Arviat father two weeks ago that may answer the question of why the bear left the Hudson Bay sea ice well before it was necessary. Was it lack of sea ice (blamed on global warming), as biologist Ian Stirling recently insisted — or did natural food attractants lure the bear ashore prematurely?

Aaron Gibbons_fishing_Gibbons family photo

I would also like to appeal to readers to consider a donation to the Go Fund Me campaign set up to support the widow and children of Aaron Gibbons, who was only 31 years old. So far, there has not been an overwhelming response (less than 1/2 of the modest goal of $5,000 met after two weeks) and that saddens me deeply.

I have contributed myself but each individual can only do so much. Imagine losing your spouse in this most vicious manner (the children witnessed the attack and were the one’s that called for help) and think of the challenges of healing your family and keeping it afloat financially. Please see the GO FUND ME page and contribute if you can.

What I’ve learned over the last week is that the polar bear that killed Aaron Gibbons was a big male in poor condition but he was not the only bear onshore at the time. In addition, the Arctic tern nesting colony on Sentry Island was undoubtedly an enticing natural attractant that seems to have encouraged these bears to leave the ice far north of where they might otherwise have come ashore.

UPDATE 20 July 2018: I’ve added the most recent (19 July) map of collared WH polar bear locations on Hudson Bay to the “Condition of the Sea Ice” discussion below. Also, I am pleased to see that the GO FUND ME campaign has now gone above the half-way mark (~$2800.00 as of 2:00 PM Pacific time). My personal thanks to every one who was able to contribute. I hope to see the goal reached within the next few days.

UPDATE 6 September 2018: A news announcement today revealed that the necropsy done on the bear that attacked Aaron Gibbons was an adult male in “fair” condition (thin but not skinny). See my report here and the news story here. And I’m pleased to report that the GoFundMe goal of $5000 for Aaron’s family has been reached: thanks to all PolarBearScience readers for their support.

The attack: where and when

On the evening of 3 July 2018 (about 7:30 pm), 31 year old Aaron Gibbons was mauled to death by a polar bear on Sentry Island (see map below), a barrier island about 10 km offshore from the village of Arviat (“Eskimo Point” on old maps) on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay, Nunavut. Arviat is located 260 km (~160 m) north of Churchill, Manitoba; with about 2,500 inhabitants, Arviat is almost three times as large as Churchill (which had about 900 permanent residents in 2016).

Sentry Island location long view_Google maps

The attack occurred when a polar bear started to stalk one of Aaron’s three young children. He put himself between the kids and the bear so they could run to the safety of their boat. Aaron was mauled to death while his children watched and his terrified daughter called for help on the boat’s radio. He did not have his gun at hand at the time and died soon afterward from his injuries.

Another person on the island heard the screams and shot the bear.

Condition of the bear

So far, my discussions with Aaron’s uncle (Gordy Kidlapik) have determined that the bear was close to 9 feet in length, presumably male, and relatively thin. The precise health condition of the bear and his age has either not yet been determined or that information not yet released. Arviat Conservation Officer Joe Savikataaq Jr. has not yet made an official public statement. [I will update this as information becomes available]

As the incident occurred on 3 July, the bear must have come ashore on that date at the latest. However, given the condition of the sea ice at the time, he almost certainly came ashore weeks earlier.

Condition of the sea ice

By 1 July 2018, the sea ice was already well offshore from the Arviat area:

Hudson Bay North daily concentration 2018 July 1 ice warning

The latest date that there was a continuous ice connection between the Hudson Bay pack ice and the shorefast ice near Arviat was about the third week of May, so bears could have come ashore as early as this or before:

Hudson Bay weekly concentration 2018 May 21

By the last week of May, the main Hudson Bay pack ice may have been close enough for determined bears to swim ashore and hang out on the ice close to shore:

Hudson Bay weekly concentration 2018 May 28

Late May is very early for Western Hudosn Bay polar bears to come ashore. We know from a 27 June twitter post made by polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher that all of the females he and his team collared last fall near Churchill were still on the ice as of 25 June (not updated since):

Derocher 25 June 2018 WH collared females on the ice

UPDATE 20 July 2018: Derocher has posted the latest location map, copied below. He notes that at least 4 Western Hudson Bay bears were still on the ice as of 19 July 2018:

Derocher 19 July 2018 position of collared females on Hudson Bay

In an interview last week (GlobalNews, 13 July 2018), polar bear biologist Ian Stirling blamed the fatal attack on Aaron Gibbons on lack of sea ice:

“Polar bear expert Ian Stirling of the University of Alberta says they’re not wrong to say bears are posing a bigger problem than ever before. Stirling says you never used to see bears this close to land as they hunted almost exclusively on ice floes.

The primary explanation (for bears coming close to town) is likely the shortage of ice,” he says. “Not the ice itself but what it means for bears. Late spring and early summer is their primary hunting time.” [my bold]

Stirling’s “explanation” for Western Hudson Bay bears coming off the ice in late May around Arviat is at odds with Derocher’s bears being well out on the ice in late June. In other words, it’s a facile excuse, not an evidence-based explanation.

The question is this: why did some WH polar bears come ashore in the northwestern area of Hudson Bay so much earlier than necessary this year? If most bears were still on the ice at the end of June, why did the bear that killed Aaron Gibbons come ashore near Arviat a month or more before that time?

Other polar bears ashore

The map below shows the area around Arviat: Sentry Island is about 10 km offshore and the airport just south of the village:

Arviat airport and Sentry Island locations_Google maps

According to local informants, at least one other bear was seen on Sentry Island in the same area as the attack on Aaron Gibbons occurred. However, how many others might have been on the island at the time is not known.

Sentry Island has an undulating landscape and broad areas of vegetation that could obscure a bear from sight (see satellite image below):

Sentry Island closeup1_Google maps satellite

In addition, locals hunting out on the tundra south of Arviat in the weeks after the attack spotted at least 9 bears along the beach between Arviat and a small river a few miles south, suggesting that as many as a dozen bears (perhaps more) had come ashore in the area in late May — and not all of them were in poor condition.

Arviat airport and Sentry Island locations south to the river_Google maps

And on 19 June, a fat bear was spotted near the Arviat airport, heading north towards town. Locals chased it south, see picture below.

Bear being chased from Arviat airstrip_June 19 2018 Gordy

Polar bear near the Arviat airport, heading north towards town, 19 June 2018. Locals chased it south. Gordy Kidlapik photo.

Same bear (below), earlier in the day on the beach east of the airport, heading north towards Arviat:

Bear on Arviat airstrip headed north into town before being chased away_June 19 2018 Gordy

Polar bear 19 June 2018 on the beach southeast of the Arviat airport, heading north towards town. Gordy Kidlapik photo.

Earlier in the year, a number of bears were spotted outside the Arviat town dump.

The picture below, taken on 11 April 2018, shows one of four bears seen the same day, including a female with two newborn cubs that must have been born nearby:

Polar bear outside Arviat dump April 11 2018 one of four spotted that day_Gordy Kidlapik

Polar bear 11 April 2018 outside the Arviat dump, one of four bears spotted that day (including a female with two newborn cubs). Gordy Kidlapik photo.

Attractants

Sentry Island has both natural and human attractants: it’s a popular summer fishing and hunting area for Arviat residents and hosts colonies of ground-nesting birds.

According to Gordy Kidlapik, bears just off the ice in recent years have mostly been in good condition:

“The past few years most of the bears we see have been looking healthy, even with low stomachs. Yes there will be the younger bears too that are thinner than the more experienced bears but they are hanging out right now where water fowls including arctic terns are nesting.[my bold]

Arctic terns breed and nest in a number of locations across the North Atlantic and Sentry Island just happens to be one of those. It’s a favourite place for Arviat residents to collect fresh eggs. Keep in mind that keeping chickens is not a viable option for Arctic residents and the purchace of commercially-raised eggs from outside requires cash. Tern eggs are therefore a much sought-after natural commodity but they must be collected soon after they’ve been laid — which means a short window of opportunity.

According to one authority, Arctic terns breed in large, noisy colonies.

“Arctic Terns breed in treeless areas with little to no ground cover, in open boreal forests, and on small islands and barrier beaches along the northern Atlantic Coast.”

Late June to early July is when the eggs are laid in the Hudson Bay region but the colony would begin forming much earlier. Eggs and hatchlings are an available resource for polar bears for almost two months (about 3 weeks for the eggs to hatch plus another 3-4 weeks until the hatchlings are old enough to leave). The noise and smell of the developing rookery would alert polar bears to the coming attraction as early as late May/early June.

Some great photos of terns on their nests and the eggs themselves here.

Obviously, the Arctic tern colony on Sentry Island would be a powerful attractant to any undernurished polar bear, but especially hungry subadult males. By late May, few seals are available out on the sea ice (since most of the easy to catch young-of-the-year seal pups are in the water feeding by that time, leaving only predator-savvy adults hauled out on the ice moulting). See the lengths one polar bear went to in order to reach murre eggs and chicks in Svalbard.

The McConnell River delta, the second river south of Arviat (see discussion above), is a migratory bird sanctuary where large populations of ducks, Ross’s goose and snow goose gather to nest in early summer. In other words, this is another major natural attractant for polar bears coming off the ice north of Churchill.

McConnell Bird Sanctuary south of Arviat

As discussed above, one of the human-associated attractants that brings polar bears into Arviat is the town dump, but bears are also attracted to dog yards, the town cemetary, caches of stored food, as well as fumes from cooking food and burning garbage. Also, carcasses of whales left over from aboriginal hunting left onshore are huge attractants (such as at Kaktovik, Alaska): note that Sentry Island is also a place for Arviat residents to hunt beluga, this does not happen until later in the summer (there are no fresh beluga carcasses on the island at this time of year).

All of these natural and human-associated attractants don’t necessarily mean that they provide enough food to help undernourished polar bears survive, it just means the polar bears will come around looking for food. Bears are attracted to these smells even when they are already fat. But if an undernourished bear happens to find easy human prey among the attractants, he is apt to display his predatory prowess. Sadly, that seems to have been the case for Aaron Gibbons. It was a bad day not to have his gun handy but of course he didn’t know that at the time.

Concluding remarks

Arviat is a rather large Arctic community that has a big polar bear problem (see stories here, here, and here).

Churchill had serious polar bear problems in the 1960s and 1970s when the town’s human population was much larger (e.g. almost 4,000 in 1961, including military personel) and when the polar bear population was growing after years of overhunting (Stirling et al. 1977). Churchill has thus had decades longer to come up with (and finance) solutions to their polar bear problems (Kearney 1989; Stirling et al. 1977).

However, one of their “solutions” may be causing problems further north: the so-called “green dot” bears. From a CBC report (6 April 2016):

“Churchill’s strategy for dealing with problem bears in their community has been put the rascal rogue bears in polar bear jail,” said Pete Ewins, WWF-Canada’s lead specialist in species conservation.

After a few weeks in the “jail” the bears are airlifted under sedation and moved north up the coast where they can continue their migration.

These bears often show up in other communities like Arviat.

“I suddenly started seeing polar bears at the Arviat dump with these green spots on their backs, and that’s the mark that Churchill gives their bears when they’re released,” said Ewins.

“Churchill’s solution is actually creating problems for Arviat.”

“Churchill’s solution is actually creating problems for Arviat,” especially when it’s been going on long enough for the bears to learn there are food sources north of Churchill. In other words, are ‘green dot’ bears (or their descendants) now coming ashore around Arviat in early summer when they formerly came ashore south of Churchill in the fall?

Arviat has abundant natural and human-associated polar bear attractants and while it is getting some help from WWF for fall polar bear patrols it is not nearly enough. Keeping bears out of the dump, keeping stored food, dogs, and hunting camps safe are still huge issues year round.

Irresistible attractants close to any Arctic community is a safety issue and solutions must be found to keep residents safe and their food secure. It is not as simple as blaming the death of Aaron Gibbons on climate change: it is about acknowledging that Arctic communities need financial help to stay safe as polar bear populations continue to grow.

References

Kearney, S.R., 1989. The Polar Bear Alert Program at Churchill,Manitoba. In: Bromely, M. (Ed.), Bear–People Conflict: Proceedings of a Symposium on Management Strategies, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories Department of Renewable Resources, pp. 83–92. [courtesy M. Dyck, Gov’t of Nunavut] Pdf here.

Stirling I, Jonkel C, Smith P, Robertson R, Cross D. 1977. The ecology of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) along the western coast of Hudson Bay. Canadian Wildlife Service Occasional Paper No. 33. pdf here. [a very interesting read for an historical perspective]

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