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Fort Albany Polar Bear Workshop Adventure

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Part of the Polar Bear Habitat’s mandate is to help create a sustainable future for polar bears and we don’t take that statement lightly.  We’re committed to initiating programming and actions that support our mandate.

Polar bears in places like Moose Factory, Attiwapiskat and Kashechewan aren’t the norm.  It’s suspected climate change is at least a factor, if not the cause of 8 incidents since December, 2015 in those James Bay communities.  That’s why when Mushkegowuk Council told us about their new Environmental Steward program to lead collection of data and education on climate change, we immediately saw an opportunity for a partnership to facilitate a workshop on how to deter polar bears from their communities.

Mushkegowuk agreed and funded the program, enabling 5 live polar bear traps to be constructed and delivered to Peawanuck, Attiwapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Moose Factory, with a workshop scheduled for March 13th to 16th in Fort Albany attended by 8 community Environmental Stewards, 3 Polar Bear Habitat Staff and a professional bear deterrent consultant, Andy McMullen from Bear Wise.

Luckily, cold weather held long enough to allow PBH staff to hitch up the first constructed live bear trap and drive the 7.5-hour journey on the Wetum Ice Road from Smooth Rock Falls to Moosonee, then the James Bay Winter Road from Moosonee to Fort Albany.

It didn’t take long for me to be incredibly thankful Dylan likes driving as travelling an ice road with a polar bear trap/trailer attached is not for the feint of heart.  Even with 4-wheel drive and a truck loaded with skids and supplies, there were still many slippery moments.

Beautiful.  An item I didn’t know should be on my bucket list.  Nerve wracking.  All describe the trip – but none do it justice.

Once we found Loon’s Lodge after asking directions of a few extremely friendly locals (close to the airport if anyone’s planning to go), and unfolded ourselves from our truck, we were incredibly glad we had brought some food from Cochrane, so we didn’t have to buy items at a minimum of twice the cost in their local variety store to make dinner.

Our lodge house was exclusively for our workshop participants, and we immediately felt welcomed by other attendees who were using the house kitchen (and had also brought groceries), and the workshop leader, consultant Andy McMullen.

Day 1 of the workshop held at the Community Centre was all about bear behaviour and biology.  The idea being, if you know where and why a polar bear is going to be in a certain place at a certain time, you can understand how to avoid being in their path.  Hunting, mating, denning, walking hibernation, and what a bear’s temperament is likely going to be like during each of those seasons according to its age and sex, were described for participants to try and think from a bear’s perspective.  We learned that 90% of polar bear/human incidents are with male polar bears under 3 years old (described as like cocky, 18-year old human males), and that well-fed big males are not likely interested in humans at all.  We also went over what might attract a bear to your camp or community and discussed waste management solutions.

On day 2 the group began the discussion of what to consider if a bear is still attracted to your camp or community.  The importance of pre-planning possible escape routes for bears so you don’t unintentionally cause a fear response, and reading the bear’s intentions accurately (whether it’s curious, threatened or aggressive) before acting were interesting topics.  By late afternoon, the group was ready to practise using deterrents on the firing range.  Flares, rubber bullets and banger launchers were aimed at paper polar bears attached to wooden skids.

The morning of Day 3 was for review and a scheduled call with a wildlife officer from Arviat, Nunavut who discussed his experiences using a live trap, and using scent trails to lead polar bears away from town.

By 10:40 a.m., the PBH team was on the ice road again, minus one polar bear live trap we left for the community of Fort Albany, headed to Moosonee to catch the Polar Bear Express home.

The fact Mushkegowuk Council enabled this workshop to take place and that they entrusted us to facilitate it, makes us feel both incredibly humbled, and proud.  Regardless of jurisdictional questions between government ministries and area enforcement officers, Mushkegowuk recognized the need and made a pro-active response to ensure the safety of their communities.

But it wasn’t just Mushkegowuk who stepped up.  Canada Culverts donated culverts for the bear traps at cost.  Tim Moyer of Tran Express delivered the culverts, and the first trap to PBH for the cost of the gas.  The Polar Bear Express helped out with discounted train and truck transport for our journey back.  Sylvaine Gelineau of deGarage in North Cobalt provided construction of the live traps.  And the people of Fort Albany put up with a bunch of crazy “southerners” who couldn’t seem to find their way in a town of 1,500 without getting lost.

We know this workshop is just the beginning, and that there is a lot more to do to ready all the communities for potential polar bear visitors, but feel this was an amazing first step.  We are motivated by Mushkegowuk’s initiative and prepared to continue our partnership on this journey to ensure a future for Ontario’s polar bears.

Written by: Karen Cummings, Manager PBH

Photos: Kendra Marjerrison, Marketing & Event Coordinator PBH

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