Wapusk National Park of Canada

Counting Polar Bears

Cam Elliott
Superintendent: Wapusk National Park and Manitoba North National Historic Sites

Nine adult male bears at (can you spot them?) a traditional summer congregating site in Wapusk NP. Click to enlarge image. Nine adult male bears at (can you spot them?) a traditional summer congregating site in Wapusk NP. Click to enlarge image.
© Parks Canada

Wapusk National Park (NP) protects one of the largest concentrations of polar bear maternity dens in the world, and is home to the longest-running research program on polar bears anywhere. So, it’s not surprising when park visitors ask, “how many polar bears are there in Wapusk?” But, there is no quick and easy answer to this question...

The polar bears in Wapusk NP belong to the Western Hudson Bay sub-population of bears. A census of any wildlife population is never exact, but, at last count, there were an estimated 935 bears in this population. How many of these bears are in the Park at any given time? This depends on a number of things, like the time of year. The Park holds the fewest number of bears in the spring when they are virtually all out on the sea ice. Late summer and early fall is the period when most bears are in the Park.

The number of bears in Wapusk NP also varies from one year to the next, depending on where the melting ice leaves polar bears on shore. Pregnant female bears tend to make landfall earlier than the rest of the bears and have preferred places to come ashore on their way to the denning area in Wapusk NP. The rest of the bears remain on the ice as long as possible and their landfall, anywhere along the coast between Cape Churchill and the Manitoba-Ontario boundary, is governed by the ice melt.

Even though there are variations from season to season and from year to year, it is important for wildlife managers to keep track of when polar bears come ashore, where they go and how many are seen within the Park. Parks Canada staff and researchers keep records of all polar bear observations which give a good picture of the number of bears in the Park and what physical condition the animals appear to be in. Visitors who report polar bear sightings to Parks Canada are a big help in this – their observations provide added information and site-specific details.

Parks Canada relies on these data to manage the Park on two fronts: maintaining a safe environment for polar bears and maintaining a safe environment for people. Through annual bear counts, areas important to polar bears are identified. There are locations where adult males congregate for the summer and these sites are used every year. The denning area, used by the female bears, is especially critical to the survival of the population. On the flip side, there are areas where it is unusual to see a polar bear. Knowing the timing and location of these areas allows Parks Canada to manage Wapusk NP in ways that avoid causing disturbance to the bears. It also allows us to plan visitor facilities and activities in ways that maintain a high level of safety for people in the Park when bears are on shore.

Even with the best of precautions, people and polar bears will come into contact in the Park. The first and best response is to avoid an encounter. This is accomplished by finding out where bears are known to congregate and being careful not to venture into these areas. When a bear is seen on the land, changing a work location or hiking route is an effective way to avoid an encounter. In contrast, once a facility in the Park is built, it is not moveable and may attract polar bears and other wildlife. At the new bear-safe fenced compound at Broad River, cameras have been installed to record the number of bears that approach. Over time, the images taken will be used to determine if the facility is attracting bears, how many bears are visiting, and the times when bears are more likely to be at the facility. With this information, Parks Canada can plan how the compound will be used in order to minimize attracting bears and lessen the chance of people encountering a bear.

Who’s on Candid Camera?

The automated camera mounted on the fence at Broad River in Wapusk NP has given Parks Canada a glimpse of what animals are visiting the facility and when. Between July 2nd and August 24th 2010, polar bears were caught on camera eight times (single bears six times and two bears twice). A single wolf was photographed at 2:38 a.m. on July 25th and on the afternoon of July 27th.

Between July 2nd and August 24th 2010, polar bears were caught on camera eight times (single bears six times and two bears twice). Between July 2nd and August 24th 2010, polar bears were caught on camera eight times (single bears six times and two bears twice).
© Parks Canada

A single wolf was photographed at 2:38 a.m. on July 25th and on the afternoon of July 27th. A single wolf was photographed at 2:38 a.m. on July 25th and on the afternoon of July 27th.
© Parks Canada