Climate Change: The Extreme Example of Human Wildlife Conflict
Victor Alm – Zoological Manager, Oakland Zoo
On several occasions at Climate Change Leadership camp we have discussed the human wildlife conflict in regards to polar bears. The first time was in the town of Churchill, Manitoba with Natural Resource officer Bob Windser who works for Manitoba Conservation.
Bob is in charge of the Bear Alert Program in and around Churchill where they deal with the potential interactions between the residents and the migrating polar bears. The main reasons for interaction are because polar bears are passing by on their migration north to meet the sea ice (which they depend on for their main food source of seals) and hunger (if they are in poor physical condition). The response to polar bears can take many forms from deterrence to dispatch. Deterrence is the preferred method and takes several non-lethal forms. The first and preferred methods are used to drive bears from out and around town using noise emitting firearms called screamers, bangers, and crackers. The second is to use paintball guns and white paint on those that are not fazed by noise. The third is to chemically immobilize bears or trap bears and bring them to a specially designed polar bear holding facility where they can spend several days to a month, depending on the circumstances of capture. For example, a sow with cubs would only spend a few days. The polar bears are relocated thirty to forty miles outside of town and if possible back onto the sea ice. The other Non-preferred method is to put the bears down. It is reserved for situations where the safety of the residents, tourists, or officers is at risk.
Over the last few years, officials have seen an increase in the number of polar bears that have gone through their program. More bears are also migrating through and around town, approximately one month earlier than in years past. This is unusual because once polar bears leave the sea ice in late spring/early summer, they tend to fast for several months and wait for the return of the sea ice, generally not interested in eating/hunting unless they come across something opportunistically. For a normal, happy, and healthy bear, fasting is not a problem. But Natural Resource Officers are not always seeing healthy bears; instead, they are seeing them in declining condition. Due to the increasing sea ice loss from overall rising global temperature (caused by accumulations of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) bears are having to spend more time on land fasting and less time on the ice fattening up on seals.
Some say our changing climate could be seen as the ultimate trigger for a human and wildlife conflict; not only with polar bears, but potentially with numerous other species that will be trying to adapt and move as their habitats and natural behavior is altered.