Tuesday, March 22nd 2022, 3:25 pm - Mother grizzly spotted with cubs, but breeding population not yet confirmed.
Grizzly bears are being spotted so often in northern Manitoba, a new study concludes they are now "regular residents" of this province, especially along the coast of Hudson Bay.
In the March issue of the academic publication Arctic, a team of wildlife experts led by Doug Clark at the University of Saskatchewan investigated every suspected or confirmed grizzly sighting over the past four decades in Manitoba and found the big bears are being observed with increasing frequency.
Of 133 confirmed sightings since 1980, 103 took place in the 2010s — a five-fold increase from the previous decade, the researchers found.
"We've seen grizzly bear observations more than double every decade since the 1980s," said Clark, an associate professor in the School of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
"It's not just one bear wandering through any-more. It's pretty clearly something else going on."
That something may not just be increased visitation by bears who likely lumber down the Hudson Bay coast from Nunavut, Clark said. One of the sightings involved a mother grizzly with two cubs, something that suggests but does not confirm grizzlies are now breeding in Manitoba, Clark said.
A grizzly bear captured by a wildlife camera in May 2020 near the Owl River in Manitoba's Wapusk National Park. Grizzly sightings have increased in recent years in northern Manitoba. (Submitted by Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan)
"I think it's very likely to be accurate. However, we're not calling it confirmed because there are implications for what it would mean for the province," he said, explaining the presence of a confirmed breeding population could trigger a management plan for the species.
"We need a pretty high standard of evidence there."
A spokesperson for the province said officials with the natural resources and northern development department are aware of Clark's research, but stressed there is no confirmation grizzlies are breeding here.
Clark said he would be "stunned, if given what we're seeing, there are not grizzlies reproducing in Manitoba," but right now most of the grizzlies have been seen in Wapusk National Park and in the Churchill Wildlife Management area, where cubs have not been spotted.
3 BEAR SPECIES IN ONE PLACE
The Hudson Bay coast of Manitoba is the only place in the world where grizzlies, polar bears and black bears have been confirmed to coexist.
Clark said the apparent rise in grizzly numbers has implications for black bears, who tend to live inland from the coast, and polar bears, which only frequent the coast during the months when there is no ice on Hudson Bay.
"There's a whole variety of things that go on when grizzly bears and polar bears meet: grizzly bears killing the polar bears, grizzly bears and polar bears also mate, and you've got everything going on in between," he said.
Grizzlies also tend to dominate black bears when the two species overlap, but young grizzlies can run into trouble if they encounter older black bears, he said.
"The fact that there's an established population of black bears that tend to live a little further inland in northern Manitoba may limit where grizzlies spread or how much they spread," Clark said.
EFFECT ON HUMANS
There are also implications for people in northern Manitoba. While Cree and Inuit have observed grizzlies in northern Manitoba for centuries, oral histories and historical records suggest they did not encounter the species in large numbers, Clark said.
"People in northern Manitoba know a whole lot about about dealing with polar bears and they know a lot about dealing with black bears, too. Grizzly bears are new," he said.
"Grizzlies behave a little differently than polar bears and black bears most of the time."
For example, while polar bears tend to push their way through cabin doors or windows, grizzlies can pull them open, Clark said. That has implications for the way northerners design their homes and cabins, he added.
A spokesperson for the province says it receives several reports a year about grizzly sightings along the Hudson Bay coastline and staff occasionally see the animals as well.
The province advises Manitobans it's illegal to kill grizzlies and urges people to minimize conflict with the animals.
Clark said more research must be conducted to find out why grizzlies seem to be expanding their range and precisely where they're going.
One mystery he'd like to solve is where grizzlies go during the early fall, as there have been few sightings along the Hudson Bay coast in September even though wildlife scientists monitor the area all year.
"There's a great big gap between late summer and when the bears typically go into their dens," he said. "We don't know where the bears are."
The story was written by Bartley Kives, originally published for CBC News on March 22, 2022.