Polar Bears

It is estimated that the polar bear population of the western Hudson Bay area, an area extending from the Manitoba-Ontario boundary through to Chesterfield Inlet in Nunavut, is approximately 935.

The majority of the population spends most of the year, from mid-November to mid-July, on the ice of Hudson Bay. Pregnant females are an exception to this, spending from mid-November through to March in maternity dens on land, and then moving to the sea ice with their cubs. From mid-July through to mid-November the entire population is forced onto adjacent coastal lands as the ice disappears. The greatest concentrations during this time period occur between the Nelson River and the town of Churchill.

High demand is seen for tourism operations in the Churchill area for access to world-class polar bear viewing opportunities. The number of commercial tour operators and the number of vehicles permitted on the high-use areas east of the townsite continues to be restricted. Measures are also taken to restrict travel to existing trails, designate some areas as off-limits, and more actively enforce the prohibition on baiting.

Bear condition and productivity has declined steadily over the last decade. Fall weight of all age classes for both sexes declined, and a steady decline was seen in spring weight of adult females leaving the denning area with cubs. The reproductive rate of females also declined, as did the survival rate of cubs. Researchers from the Canadian Wildlife Service continue to investigate this trend and its possible causes.

Manitoba lists the polar bear as threatened under The Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, and as protected under The Wildlife Act. Provincial staff participate on the Canadian Polar Bear Technical Committee and on the Advisory Committee which meet yearly to discuss polar bear management issues.

Enhanced protection of Manitoba polar bears and their habitat has also been achieved through:

  1. the licensing and regulation of ecotourism operators under The Resource Tourism Operators Act to prevent illegal or substandard facilities and operations; and
  2. regulating the procurement, holding and export of live Polar Bears under The Polar Bear Protection Act.

Manitoba does not permit the harvesting of polar bears in the province for either recreational or commercial purposes. In order to protect people and property at the Churchill townsite, Manitoba must unfortunately destroy some problem bears. The number killed or removed remains small and does not affect the population.

In December 2009, Manitoba announced a $31 million investment towards the creation of an International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

More detailed information on polar bears can be obtained through the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre's species database.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Polar Bears in Hudson Bay

Thanks to the efforts of Canadian Wildlife Service biologists, the Western Hudson Bay population is one of the best-studied populations of polar bears in the world. Some of the results of those studies are troubling. A warming trend has been observed in the Arctic that has resulted in a three-percent loss to the extent of the pack ice every decade since 1970. Coupled with a spring break-up that is now occurring roughly three weeks earlier than historical records indicate, these changes have serious implications for polar bears.

Hudson Bay's bears live on the ice hunting seals through the winter and into the summer. When the ice melts, they move ashore and survive on stored fat until the following winter when they can hunt seals on the ice once again. Most bears fast for about four months, however, pregnant females remain on land to give birth and fast for about eight months. Early ice break-up cuts short their time to hunt and build up their body condition, and longer ice-free periods extend the time that the bears fast on shore. Studies have shown that for each early week that break-up occurs, the bears come ashore ten kilograms lighter and thus in poorer condition.

Warmer weather for Hudson Bay can have other catastrophic impacts on polar bears. Spring rains can collapse maternity dens before mother and cub have departed and can impact the maternity dens of ringed seals, the primary prey species for Manitoba's polar bears. If the ringed seal population declines as a result, the polar bear population would decline in turn.

Warmer weather can also lead to an increase in the number of forest and brush fires in areas where polar bears dig maternity dens in peat. Fires melt the permafrost and without roots and other plant debris to hold the roofs together, dens often collapse. It can take 70 years after a fire for enough trees and shrubs to grow back to allow the denning sites to be used again.

It is possible, that if our society does nothing to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, that the resulting global warming may some day produce ice conditions in Hudson Bay that could not support a population of polar bears.

Protection of Polar Bears in Manitoba

Manitoba and Canada are party to a number of agreements respecting the protection of polar bears and Manitoba has a robust legislative and policy framework in place for the protection of polar bears and residents of Churchill, the only community where bears and people routinely interact.

The Government of Manitoba actively participates in the management of the polar bears' welfare through provincial programs or cooperative programs with other jurisdictions.

Manitoba Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources must occasionally remove polar bears from Churchill to protect life and property and must balance conflicting public opinion regarding placement in zoos and animal welfare.

Concern over the status and use of polar bears in captive situations led to an expansion and strengthening of provincial legislation. The Polar Bear Protection Act and Regulations became law in 2002 and were specifically implemented to prevent the use of Manitoba polar bears in an unacceptable manner such as by a circus. The regulation permits orphaned cubs-of-the-year (COY) to be donated to zoos that meet or exceed the specified facility and husbandry standards and prohibits the capture of polar bears specifically for donation to zoos. Manitoba's facility and husbandry standards have been widely hailed as among the best published standards in the world. The Act recognizes the contribution of zoos to wildlife conservation and conservation education and that zoos with appropriate facilities and husbandry practices can provide an acceptable quality of life for polar bears.

A foster parenting study, conducted in conjunction with Manitoba Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources by a British animal welfare organization called The Born Free Foundation, took place in the Churchill area between 2000/2001 and 2009/2010 to determine if female bears with one healthy cub would accept a second orphaned cub. The study was terminated in 2010 due to a lack of success.

Agreements, Legislation, and Policy for the Protection of Polar Bears in Manitoba

Protection of Denning Habitat

  • With the establishment of Wapusk National Park in 1996 and the transfer of land from the provincial crown to the federal crown completed in March 1998, the majority of the maternity denning habitat in Manitoba is now protected by Parks Canada. Maternity denning habitat outside of Wapusk National Park remains under Manitoba jurisdiction and occurs now in the Kaskatamagan Wildlife Management Area, which contains the former Cape Tatnam WMA, renamed and expanded in 2009 to include lands further inland. The management objectives are to protect the environment, to keep a sustainable wildlife population and to provide recreational opportunities in a sustainable manner.

The Wildlife Act

  • Polar bears have historically always had some form of protection in Manitoba since they are wildlife within the meaning of The Wildlife Act, ie., wild by nature in Manitoba.
  • Hunting and killing of polar bear was first prohibited in 1949 when hunting was limited to bona fide residents of the Hudson Bay coastal area.
  • In 1954, natives were prohibited from selling or otherwise disposing of polar bears or parts thereof and any person other than a native was prohibited from being in possession of a polar bear or any part thereof.
  • In 1963, the polar bear was listed as Big Game under Division 1 of the Act. This listing occurred primarily to be consistent with other large mammals that have usually been viewed as being a big game species. Manitoba has never had a sport hunting or trapping season for polar bears despite this classification.
  • In 1991, the status of the species in Schedule A to the Act was changed from Big Game to Protected Species. This change in status did not confer any additional protection, but was intended to convey that this was not a huntable species in Manitoba. The change was also consistent with the interprovincial, national and international status of the species.

The Polar Bear Protection Act

The Polar Bear Protection Act was given Royal Assent on August 2, 2002. The act;

  • establishes the grounds under which a live polar bear may be procured or considered for placement in a captive situation, (educational, scientific or other purpose deemed to be in the public interest), and the prioritization for such placement (provincial, national or international);
  • establishes prohibitions, to the extent that a provincial authority is empowered to regulate such matters, respecting off-shore issues such as use of a live polar bear in contravention of Manitoba policies or laws;
  • establishes provision for regulations by the minister respecting matters such as permit eligibility and facility and care standards that must be met by any agency in order to be eligible to receive a polar bear.
International Agreements

Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group

  • The management of polar bears is guided by the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat that was signed in Oslo, Norway in 1973 by the five polar range states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, USA, and the former USSR). The Agreement forms an action plan for polar bear management.
  • The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) was officially established under the umbrella of the IUCN Species Survival Commission in 1968. It's work provided the basis for the 1973 agreement and the group continues to provide informed advice on polar bear management.
  • The PBSG has at present 24 members, all research scientists from the five nations signing the Agreement. They meet every 3-5 years to discuss matters pertaining to research and management of polar bears throughout their range. The last meeting was held in Denmark in June 2009. The group invites specialists as felt necessary to address specific research and management issues of specific concern.


  • The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973) (CITES) has been in effect since July 1975.
  • Polar bears are included in Appendix II to the Convention ("all species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction, may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival").
  • Since July 1975, a permanent record of all polar bears, hides, or any other products legally exported from or imported to Canada has been maintained by the Federal Government through the issue of permits.
National/Inter-jurisdictional Programs and Agreements

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)

  • COSEWIC assigns national status to species at risk in Canada. It is a committee of representatives from federal, provincial, territorial, and private agencies, as well as independent experts.
  • COSEWIC designated the polar bear as "Not At Risk" in 1986, which was upgraded to "Vulnerable" in 1991. No change in status was recommended in an updated status report for polar bears submitted to the COSEWIC Mammal Subcommittee in summer 1998 (Stirling and Taylor 1999). In April 1999, COSEWIC again listed the polar bear as "Vulnerable".
  • Species designations were recently changed, with the former category "Vulnerable" being replaced by the category "Special Concern". Consequently, COSEWIC currently lists the polar bear as a species of "Special Concern". Species of special concern have characteristics that make them particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events that could lead to endangerment.

Federal Provincial Polar Bear Technical Committee(PBTC) and Advisory Committee (PBAC)

  • Manitoba participates on the PBTC and PBAC which meet yearly to discuss polar bear management issues.
Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, Manitoba

Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bears roam the ice of Hudson Bay hunting seals. When the ice melts in July, the bears come ashore. They remain on land until the bay freezes over in late November. While on land the bears eat little and are quite inactive. As autumn approaches, they begin to move northward along the coast and congregate where the first winter ice forms. This annual movement brings many bears into the town of Churchill each year.

Polar bears are intelligent animals and learn behaviour essential for survival. Some behaviour associated with the town of Churchill (scavenging at the dump or in town) is not necessary to the bear's survival and can create a potentially dangerous, sometimes fatal, situation for both bears and people. To manage this people/bear mix, Wildlife, Fisheries, and Enforcement Branch operates the Polar Bear Alert Program, which has the following objectives:

  • To protect people and property from the dangers posed by the presence of polar bears,
  • To ensure the conservation of polar bears and avoid undue harassment and killing of bears,
  • To prevent polar bears in the Churchill area from becoming conditioned to scavenging for food or developing other problem behaviours
  • To protect Manitoba Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources staff who work in the Polar Bear Alert Program

The Polar Bear Alert Program is preventative in nature by minimizing the possibilities of unsafe or unexpected interactions between people and polar bears. To accomplish this, a control zone around the immediate Churchill townsite and former dump was established in which polar bears are not allowed. Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources staff will also respond to requests made by the public to areas outside of the zone if a polar bear is considered to be a threat. A 24-hour hotline (675-2327 or 675-Bear) is available for people to report bears in the Churchill area.

When a bear enters the control zone, the Polar Bear Alert Team's first response is to try to move the bear out of the area, usually with scaring devices. If the bear cannot be encouraged to move or if not present when the team arrives, a live trap is set for the bear. In situations where the bear presents an immediate threat, the bear is immobilized with a dart gun on the site. When a bear is captured, it is moved into a specially built holding compound called the Polar Bear Holding Facility.

The polar bear holding facility holds problem bears captured during bear alert season. Five air conditioned cells are used during the summer and a heated holding cell is available for orphaned bear cubs. Physically containing the bears during bear alert season allows Manitoba Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources officers to protect the public and maintain the welfare of the bears at the same time.

Although capturing and holding bears at the facility is frequently profiled in the media, Manitoba's polar bear deterrent initiatives have many other components including developing public awareness, controlling attractants, hazing bears and using aversive conditioning.

The Polar Bear Alert Program begins with changing people's behaviour, not aggressive handling of bears. The Manitoba program arrived through trial and error at the same main principles as the "Bear Smart" or "Bear Wise" programs in place now across North America to allow people to coexist with black bears.

Wildlife, Fisheries, and Enforcement Branch and the town of Churchill have worked hard to educate the people of Churchill and visitors about polar bears and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations. This includes annual school classroom talks by Resource Officers, the publication and distribution of pamphlets, other printed materials and videos, and special events such as the open house held every summer at the polar bear holding facility. Additionally, numerous signs have been posted to deter people from entering areas deemed especially hazardous.

In most years, more bears will be captured than the polar bear facility will hold. When this happens, some of the bears are transported northwest, away from Churchill, by helicopter. They rarely return to Churchill in the same year. When Hudson Bay freezes, all bears in the polar bear facility are released onto the ice.

The number of polar bears captured in the program is related to weather, ice conditions in the fall and the distribution of bears along the coast. Prior to 2005, the numbers of bears caught in Churchill had been increasing, due to warmer falls or (in 1999) an early spring. The number of bears caught in Churchill has gone down since the closure of the dump in 2005.

The major threat to the western Hudson Bay polar bear population is global warming. The increase in temperature leads to changes in the sea ice, which is the preferred habitat of polar bears. It is on the ice that bears are able to kill seals. Changes in the ice which affect the seal population or the bear's ability to kill seals would adversely affect the bear population.