What’s Happening with Bear-Human Interactions in Wapusk National Park?

Sheldon Kowalchuk
Resource Conservation Manager, Wapusk National Park and Manitoba North National Historic Sites

Wapusk News - Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 2011

Motion-activated Reconyx camera image captured August 7th, 2011, 2:13 pm at Broad River Camp in Wapusk NP Motion-activated Reconyx camera image captured August 7th, 2011, 2:13 pm at Broad River Camp in Wapusk NP
© University of Saskatchewan

Encountering a polar bear in Wapusk National Park (NP) can occur any time throughout the year, but the chances increase during the ice-free season when the bears are forced ashore. Polar bears often congregate along the Hudson Bay coast, and it is common to see 20-plus bears at Cape Churchill and multiple bears at various other sites inside Wapusk NP. The same coastal habitat used by polar bears is also home to research camps, which increases the chance of interactions between humans and bears. During the first three years of the park’s operation, an average of 50% of park visitors had an interaction with a polar bear.Managing these encounters is not only important for humans, but also for the bears that make their home in Wapusk NP.

Sea ice, which provides critical habitat for polar bears of the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation, is melting earlier than in the past, and it is predicted that human encounters with polar bears will be more common in the future as the bears spend more time on land. The Wapusk National Park Management Plan outlines a number of new potential visitor opportunities, and helping to ensure that visitors can experience this remote park in a safe manner is a priority, especially given the increased amount of time that bears are likely be on shore.

For the past four years, Parks Canada has been focussed on learning more about bear-human interactions in the park. Researchers, licensed business operators and Parks Canada staff who are permitted to carry firearms in Wapusk NP are required to complete detailed bear-human interaction forms whenever they encounter a bear. Parks Canada captures all of the information on these forms in a database called “Kestrel”. This information is also provided to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to be uploaded into the Polar Bear Human Information Management System (PBHIMS). The PBHIMS is an international database which records information on interactions between humans and all species of bears, and it was developed in response to the predicted increase in interactions between humans and bears throughout the north.

From 2007 through 2010, there was an average of 10 documented cases each year in Wapusk NP where humans and bears came into close contact, and where the people involved took action to deter the bears. At this point, it is too early to draw any conclusions from these data. It is hoped that, through continuing to document these events, we will be able to learn if these interactions are increasing over time.

Parks Canada has also partnered with Dr. Douglas Clark from the University of Saskatchewan to better understand bear-human interactions in Wapusk NP, especially in the areas around research camps. Among other methods, motion-activated Reconyx wildlife research cameras are providing information about how often bears travel close to camps, as well as the time of year and time of day they are appearing. In 2010, from July 1 to mid-November, we captured thirty-nine separate camera sightings of polar bears around the Broad River multi-use fenced compound. This information is valuable as we implement safety measures for existing activities at the Broad River Camp and plan for new visitor opportunities.

With the proposed listing of the polar bear under Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act, the attention and interest on this species will only grow. It will be increasingly important to record and analyze the details from each and every bear-human interaction in the park, as well as to understand the broader trends shaping those interactions. What we learn from these encounters will help Parks Canada protect both humans and polar bears.