Polar bears develop appetite for narwhal, bowhead carcasses
“If there is no whale carcass, you can then have 100 or more bears expecting food, and then you have a community safety problem"
by JUSTIN NOBEL
Christian Joly got the photo of a lifetime last week near Resolute Bay: a mother polar bear and two cubs playing near a narwhal carcass.
“I couldn’t believe they were in front of me,” said Joly, a contractor from southern Quebec who had never seen a polar bear before. “Of course, it was huge, and amazing and beautiful.”
But the polar bears weren’t hanging around the carcass just to pose for pictures — the animals were there because they were hungry.
“Polar bears will eat any organic food that’s on the beach,” said Dr. Peter Ewins, director of species conservation with World Wildlife Fund. “They can smell food 20 kilometres away, [so] if it’s something as big as a narwhal, they’ll go check it out.”
For many people across the North, though, polar bears seem to be “checking out” whale carcasses more and more these days
Recently, near Qikiqtarjuaq, more than 30 bears were spotted around a narwhal carcass left on the beach. And outside Kaktovik, on the North Slope of Alaska, some 70 polar bears were seen devouring a bowhead carcass.
If a record existed for number of polar bears in the same spot at once, the 70 polar bears seen in Kaktovik may indeed have broken it.
Such mass polar bear sightings may make for magnificent photo opportunities, but there are also significant risks.
“Polar bears can get conditioned to rely on whale meat left outside communities,” explained Ewins. “If there is no whale carcass, you can then have 100 or more bears expecting food, and then you have a community safety problem.”
“We need to remember that these are hungry carnivores,” added Ewins. “And they’re attracted to meat.”
Ewins related an incident he observed this summer near Pond Inlet where he was working with local wildlife officials and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to put satellite radio tags on narwhals, work that will enable researchers to learn where narwhals winter.
“Hunters had left a narwhal on the beach, and a female polar bear went over to the carcass and ate for four solid hours,” said Ewins. “Her tummy was full, then she kind of waddled up the hill and went to sleep.”
There is another dark side to mass polar bear sightings, they’re a sign of just how much the environment these animals depend on is changing. And the more the ice melts, the more the bears are likely to roam beaches and communities for alternate sources of food.
“When conditions change, the edge of the range is stressed first,” Ewins said. “This is where ice is retreating quickly and you have a much greater chance that bears really are experiencing food shortages. That’s true for southern and western Hudson Bay and true for the Beaufort coastline.”
There are ways to prevent large numbers of polar bears from entering communities. In Arviat, to keep out hungry polar bears wandering in from Hudson Bay, WWF has been working with local officials to provide electric fencing around dog teams and steel bins for dog owners.
“So far it is successful,” said Ewins. “There was a reduction in the number of serious incidents last year and I’m hoping the same thing happens again this year.”
People in Arviat are also calling for more polar bear tags so, when threatened, they will be able to kill nuisance bears around town, without affecting their regular hunt.
Back in Resolute Bay, Joly is preparing to head home to southern Quebec with great photos and a good story.
He owes it all to local hunter Peter Andrew Amarualik Junior, who told him about the polar bears and drove him there in his pickup truck. And of course Joly owes the bears too, for being on such good behavior and cooperating with his photo shoot.
“The bears didn’t appear to be in a bad mood,” said Joly. “When we first came they were taking a nap.”