Every fall, tourists flock to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, the town on the Hudson Bay’s western coast known as the polar bear capital of the world. They come toting cameras with lenses as long as their arms, eager to join guided tours to areas where they will stand a good chance of spotting Ursus maritimus.
During bear season in late fall, polar bears congregate near Churchill, waiting for the bay to freeze over so they can hunt on the ice, mainly for seals. While waiting on land, their food options are limited. And with hungry polar bears in close proximity to the town of 900 residents — not to mention the tourists padding the population — human-polar bear conflict is on everyone’s mind.
And as Arctic sea ice shrinks as a result of climate change, a surge in the number of ravenous bears could lead to an increase in bears accessing garbage and human food, damaging property, or incidents in which humans or bears are injured or killed. But Churchill is serving as a living laboratory for testing potential options to lessen conflict — including radar and artificial intelligence — that other northern communities could one day implement, too.
A global problem
Human-wildlife conflicts aren’t just an issue for the Arctic.
The warming world is compounding resource scarcity, altering the behavior patterns of humans and animals, and causing other changes that can lead to conflict, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change about human-wildlife conflicts on six continents and in five oceans.
Leigh West, doctoral student at the University of Washington and co-author of the study, says that looking at the issue on a global scale can help people identify patterns and develop interventions.
In the case of polar bears, the animals are now spending more time on land, where they can come into conflict with humans.
“In the same way down south you may look out the window and see a deer walking down the road, here in Churchill, you look out the window and there could be an 800-pound bear walking down the road. It’s so hard to conceptualize until you’re here and you’re living it,” says Chantal Cadger Maclean, conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources & Northern Development in Churchill.
The bear phone
Churchill has long been on the leading edge of interventions to help people peacefully coexist with polar bears.
Visitors arriving at the airport see a large warning sign about polar bears that shares proper precautions, such as staying alert, walking in groups, and avoiding walking at night, along with a ubiquitous phone number for reporting bear sightings.
The town’s polar bear patrol program dates back to 1969. The program’s goals include keeping humans and polar bears safe and making sure bears don’t become habituated to humans or food. A hotline is available 24 hours a day for people to report bear sightings, and patrol members immediately respond to calls.
“When you’re on call, the bear phone is everything,” Cadger Maclean says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 4 in the morning and you’re sleeping, if you’re grocery shopping, if you’re in the shower, if that bear phone rings, you’re stopping what you’re doing, you’re dropping your grocery cart, and you’re out the door hazing that bear. Every call that we get could be a life-or-death call. It could be someone being mauled by a bear or it could just be a bear passing through, but we are going to respond immediately every single time. For a bear in town, our response time is typically two minutes or under, no matter what.”
The program records an average of 250 calls or occurrences per year. When a bear needs to be ushered away, patrol members haze it with loud noises, like honking horns and cracker shells, which are fired from a shotgun and make a loud noise to scare wildlife away.
They also use measures such as following bears with a truck, ATV, snowmobile, or even on foot or by helicopter. If the bear won’t leave, they may resort to using paintball guns or rubber bullets, or trapping or tranquilizing especially stubborn bears.
Captured bears are moved to the polar bear holding facility, a former military storage site that can hold 31 bears at a time, including larger cells for family units. Though moms and cubs are relocated as soon as possible, other bears captured in or near town are held either for approximately 30 days or until the sea ice has frozen so they can head out on Hudson Bay. Scientists collect health and condition data on the bears and tag and mark them before release.
Churchill’s long-running patrol is considered successful. The town has seen only one human fatality — in 1983 — since the program began, though there have also been nonfatal incidents, most recently two serious injuries in 2013.
Artificial intelligence for bear detection
Today’s researchers are also using the community as a testing ground for AI technology that could provide even more protection for humans and bears alike in Churchill and other communities. The community and surrounding area are serving as a living laboratory to test technology involving radar detection and AI to identify polar bears and provide an early warning that they are in the area.
Researchers with the nonprofit Polar Bears International are testing a variety of systems that use radar detection to spot bears up to five kilometers away. The systems use radar to detect objects and AI to determine if those objects are polar bears. The technology behind some of these systems is already used for a variety of applications, like military purposes, airports, dams, and other surveillance functions. But teaching the AI to spot polar bears is an involved process.
“We’re finding radar is very good at seeing things that move,” says BJ Kirschhoffer, director of conservation technology for Polar Bears International. “There’s a lot of movement, especially when you get near a community. You could have any number of wild animals that are out and around a community, potentially even bears attracted to things that a community offers — interesting smells, potentially food sources, things like that — and then you have all the normal community activities, too, the things that people are doing. You have people taking their dogs on a walk, or going for a rip on their snowmobile or four-wheeler.”
He says the key to success will be finding the best “way to filter the signal from the noise, really hone in on what actually is a bear versus the massive amounts of other data that’s coming in.”
When testing these types of technology, researchers have a lot of factors to consider, including everything from where and how to position them, to each system’s unique electricity and connectivity needs.
“Top to bottom, nothing about polar bear work is easy,” Kirschhoffer says. “Everything is difficult, which I think is what makes it fun, at least for me.” He says the weather is demanding on people and equipment, and the environment is in a constant state of change, with winter coming, the sun popping out and warming things up, and then darkness falling once again as the days shorten. “It’s never static, there’s something happening there. So that provides a lot of beauty, and a lot of challenge.”
The goal is to keep everyone safe — humans and polar bears alike — and to work toward peaceful coexistence, even as the climate changes.
“When sea ice melts, bears really only have one choice, and that’s to come onto land, wherever land is, and wait for that sea ice to freeze again,” Kirschhoffer says. “And while they’re waiting on land this of course puts them at a greater risk of encountering people … or potentially wandering into their communities that dot the landscape in the north.
“It’s my belief that the technology can play an important role in helping these communities and providing them time to make decisions. I think when people get surprised, that’s when you just don’t have a lot of options. You have a kilometer or a five-kilometer warning, or even a 20-meter warning that a bear’s coming close … it gives you time to make decisions. What is the best outcome for the families up there, for the people that are working, and for the bears themselves? I think technology is a really great way to provide people options and time.”
In other words, this technology, when and if it’s implemented, could play an important role in saving lives — human and bear alike.