Manitoba battles province for its polar bears

Polar bears Photo courtesy of the CBC

Heated debates about what to do with two orphaned polar bear cubs are raging in Churchill, Manitoba.

The animals, which are currently being housed in the town’s polar bear jail, are scheduled to be sent to a zoo in Winnipeg. However, Mike Spence, Churchill’s mayor, believes the yearlings should be sent back out into the wild.

While many biologists agree that the likelihood of the bears surviving without their mother is slim, Spence believes too many of his region’s animals are being sent south.

“What we’ve been going through over the last number of years with orphan cubs directly going to the zoo is not an option. We’ve heard that loud and clear from community members,” he told the CBC.

Many believe that since polar bear cubs only have a 5 per cent chance of survival with their mothers, it is fine to release them onto the ice. Ideally, they’d be fitted with tracking collars so that scientists could better understand what happens to orphaned polar bear cubs in the wild. However, the tracking of the animals comes with its own expenses and it is highly unlikely the animals will survive the winter.

Provincial conservation officers had planned to move the animals to Assiniboine Park Zoo to ensure their survival, but, much like other zoos across the country, they have their capacity for polar bears. There is also some concern that the current habit of moving these animals to captivity does not benefit them or the communities they come from.

So the question remains: Would it be better to let nature take its course, or interfere on the cubs’ behalf? While Spence has heard from many constituents who think it’s only right that the bears stay, some are unsure.

John Gunter, the president of Fronteirs North Adventures, told the CBC that he’s unsure how the town and province should proceed.

“I don’t think anyone has the answer and I think if you ask people from the zoological community I think that they would share the sentiment of that the town has at this point, that the Assiniboine Park Zoo and the International Polar Bear Conservancy are full and there is no place in Canada for these bears to go.”

Biologist Dr. Andrew Derocher, who was one of the scientists surveyed in the decision making process, agreed that it’s a difficult decision.

“The consensus was that these cubs would not survive on their own, but that still raises the question of do you want to interfere with animals that would perish on their own? Or, do you want to intervene and move them into a captive facility?”

Currently, the bears are on standby to be flown to the zoo, but Manitoba’s ministry of Sustainable Development is still in talks with the local community.

This debate is unfortunately very timely. More and more polar bear cubs are being found orphaned in Canada’s north.

Hopefully the province will soon develop a better system that will ensure northern animals don’t have to be moved to captivity to ensure the population’s survival.

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