Natural Selection Nature Photography
By Mark J. Thomas
Polar Bears of Churchill
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For a few short weeks each year, the tiny grain port of Churchill Manitoba on the northwestern shore of Hudson's Bay becomes Grand Central Station for polar bears.

This tiny town, with fewer than 1000 year-round residents, shares its corner of the Bay with hundreds of polar bears during their northern migration. The polar bears of Canada's Hudson's Bay spend the bitter winter months out on the bay's frozen surface. There they hunt seals, their primary food source. As the ice begins to break up during the summer months, the bears come ashore several hundred miles to the south. Then they begin their annual trek northward to reach the area of the bay that will freeze first in the fall. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, the tiny town of Churchill lies right in their path. It is not uncommon for a polar bear to wander through town during the season. 

When a polar bear is sighted too close to town, the local game officials will place traps to humanely capture it. Once captured, it is then transported to the "polar bear jail." Here, captured bears are kept until they are able to be flown by helicopter out to the ice many miles from the town. It is not unusual to have more than one hundred polar bears captured and moved during one season.

Nowhere else in the world can a person have the opportunity to be so close to such a large population of polar bears with such regularity. Churchill has become a popular destination for both scientists and nature enthusiasts alike. Large "tundra buggies," some carrying as many as fifty eager guests, regularly travel over the frozen tundra in search of the great white bear. Few are disappointed. 

With the exception of an occasional scavenged scrap of food, most of these bears have not eaten since they came ashore nearly five months earlier during the summer. But as the temperature once again dips below freezing and the northern winds begin to howl, Hudson's Bay begins to freeze over. As soon as the ice becomes thick enough to support their weight, the bears head out onto the ice in search of seals.

Not all of the bears venture onto the ice. While the male bears and the mother's with cubs are eager to begin hunting, the pregnant females remain behind. These bears will give birth while they over winter in a snow den. They usually give birth to one or two cubs. But three cubs is not unheard of. When they emerge from the den in March, the mother's work has just begun. Besides feeding her new offspring, she must protect them from roaming male polar bears. Male polar bears are known to kill cubs. This is in an effort to bring the female back into her breeding cycle so his genes will be passed on to the next generation.

The cubs will usually stay with their mother for about two years. In that time, the cubs will need to learn the hunting skills necessary to survive. After their second trip to the ice with their mother, they are on there own. 

Seeing polar bears very up close and personal is an experience one does not forget. Combine such a unique opportunity with the warmth and friendliness of the local townspeople, and you will know why Churchill is one of my favorite places to visit.

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