Incidents of polar bears causing problems onshore this winter (January & February) – including one that killed a horse in Greenland and another that threatened a resident in western Hudson Bay (only weeks after several incidents in southern Labrador) may be the tip of a very scary iceberg. I’ve taken a look at what records exist of this phenomenon, which in the past often involved deadly attacks. The large number of reports this winter appears to be a real increase, which is a rather terrifying prospect indeed.
In winter, all polar bears except females in dens nursing newborn cubs are presumed by biologists to be on the sea ice hunting but it turns out that is not quite true. Although relatively rare over the last twenty years or so, it appears that in some areas, bears are now coming ashore in winter.
The photo above shows a polar bear photographed by a remote camera installed at Broad River Camp, Wapusk National Park, western Hudson Bay on 7 February 2013. It was visible to the camera for 40 minutes but apparently caused no trouble (camera installed and maintained by associate professor Doug Clark from the University of Saskatchewan and colleagues).
Given the fact that there are now many more polar bears than there were in the 1970s as well as more people living in many coastal Arctic communities, problems with bears in winter are likely to increase, as this winter’s events show. More bears out on the ice in winter (January-March) will almost certainly create more competition for the little bit of food that’s available (seals are hard to catch in winter), which means some bears might increasingly be looking for alternate sources of food onshore.