A tranquilized polar bear. Photo courtesy Brandon Laforest.

Polar bears have been popping up all over the media these days. While many of us in southern Canada have opinions on whether the increasingly vulnerable bears should be given ‘kibble’ hand-outs by humans or receive more protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, few have had the opportunity to visit them on home ice.

That’s why I was excited to stumble on a blog post my friend Brandon Laforest had written about his PhD research with York University. He’s been working in the field with polar bears, researching the effects of climate change on the feeding habits of the Southern Hudson Bay population. I wanted to glimpse more of his bear’s-eye view, so I sent some questions his way.

EJ: Your first field season wrapped up last fall. How long were you out there?

BL: Only about a week and half. One of the major limitations to our fieldwork is the high costs associated with it. Purchasing and caching helicopter fuel is very expensive, and is made more difficult by the fact that we are working in areas with no road access from the south so everything has to be flown in by fixed wing planes before we arrive.

EJ: Can you describe a day in the field?

BL: Our days are dictated by the sun. We rise in the early morning to have a bite to eat and then take off in our helicopter once the sun has risen and the visibility is clear. We can typically handle 4-6 bears per day before returning to camp just before the sun sets. We then have dinner, process our samples collected that day and prep for tomorrow.

EJ: Did you have any interactions with bears that were especially memorable?

BL: The most amazing thing to me was seeing mother polar bears with their young. I was the most impressed with one mother who had two yearlings with her, meaning this was their second and final fall with her before they would separate out on the ice this winter to become independent. Female polar bears are sometimes half the size of adult males, so it was remarkable to think about how she’d successfully spent the past two years feeding and caring for her two young.

EJ: You said you deployed GPS collars on 10 adult female polar bears. Why put the collars exclusively on females?

BL: You can think of the necks of male polar bears as being shaped like a road pylon, making it impossible to get a collar on there without them sliding out of it as soon as you leave!

Brandon Laforest and Tim Moody (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) using calipers to take skull measurements of a tranquilized polar bear. Photo © Gregory Thiemann.

EJ: You acknowledge that the bears are facing challenges due to increasing climate change impacts on their ecosystem. How hopeful are you that wild populations can be conserved?

BL: I think there is a lot of hope for the most northern subpopulations of bears, as the sea ice is projected to persist in the high North in the near future, at least. Polar bears at the southern extent of the species range face a much more difficult path. As amazing as mother polar bears are at caring for their young, a shortened feeding season through continually diminishing sea ice in Hudson Bay is making it harder and harder for them to provide enough food for themselves, let alone two or three other hungry mouths. We still have a lot to learn about how polar bears will fare in a changing North.

EJ: What is your opinion on the suggestions recently published by Andrew Derocher and colleagues for managing sensitive polar bear populations, such as feeding them?

BL: Their paper is a great review of difficult questions that we need to be ready to answer in the near future. It's time that we raise these issues and address them head on. It's a great call for a pragmatic approach to polar bear management.

EJ: What can polar bear lovers do to help them?

BL: The best way to help is to be informed about the issue, reduce your energy consumption at home and put pressure on our political representatives to form responsible energy policies and climate change response measures.

Ellen Jakubowski is a former A\J editorial intern with a BSc in Biology from the University of Guelph and a science communication diploma from Laurentian University. She works as an interpreter at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and blogs about animals in The Wild Side.

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