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Chisasibi polar bear incident highlights importance of safety training

BY Patrick Quinn May 22, 2023

A high school group in Chisasibi was surprised by two polar bears on a recent ice fishing trip. Despite guide Rusty House’s deterrence efforts, the bears refused to move away. It was judged necessary to shoot them for safety reasons.

“We had no choice but to protect the students,” said John Lameboy, Chisasibi’s Eeyou Marine Region officer. “Rusty drove around those bears with the skidoo but still they didn’t want to go away – they were very near, about 20 feet. I heard it was authorized by the Elders to shoot the bears.”

Lameboy said that another polar bear was killed at this trapline last year, a few kilometres from James Bay. As polar bears are a protected species, it’s necessary to collect certain samples for the province to analyze and to affix identification tags for legal possession of the hides. 

“I just received the two tags that come with the form we’ll fill out with Rusty, then they can take those bears anywhere,” Lameboy explained. “They cleaned them at the warehouse of the Cree Trappers’ Association then they took them back to their camp to dry the fur. Now we encounter them near the towns more than in the past.”

As much meat as possible was saved, primarily for the community’s Inuit population. Elders said that polar bears were an important food source for the Crees in the past. Lameboy recalled his father shooting one in the mid-1970s during a regular seal hunt on the open water.

“When they reached it, there were two cubs with their mother,” Lameboy told the Nation. “The cubs were bought by a teacher who paid $150 each and I think sold them to a zoo down south. That was before the laws we have today. My dad distributed the meat around town.”

Longer ice-free periods limit the bears’ access to seals, their primary food source. 

“After the ice has broken up, the polar bear doesn’t have a lot of options where to go,” said Angela Coxon, director of the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB). “They’re reluctant to be scared off into the water when they have a 20-km swim to the next island. A mother who has just emerged from the den doesn’t want to lead her cubs into water because they’re not strong swimmers yet and their small bodies don’t provide insulation.”

Most difficult to deter are hungry bears and newly independent three-year-old males that are bold and inexperienced. Dangerous encounters are exacerbated by quick ice break-ups, such as during Goose Break two years ago when bears didn’t have time to leave their den sites.

With more polar bears being reported on offshore islands around Waskaganish and Eastmain, land users should be vigilant and report bear sightings to their local Cree Trappers’ Association.

“We recommend not keeping food, fuel and foam in the cabin when you’re not there,” said EMRWB wildlife biologist Stephanie Varty. “There are non-lethal deterrents like bangers or screamers available from the CTA which are used with a firearm that can scare the bears. There are also rubber bullets available to shoot the bear in the butt.”

Discarded guts or rotten fish should be burned or put in a bear-proof bin away from the cabin. Besides loving sweet and fatty human food, polar bears are notorious destroyers of snowmobile seats and other foamy materials – one broke into a Charlton Island cabin this winter and destroyed all the sleeping mattresses. 

Photo by Jean-Philippe Brochu

With climate change impacting polar bear populations in Hudson Bay, early research points toward increasing migration to the eastern bay regions. However, Coxon said there are only an estimated 100 polar bears in all of James Bay, including about 40 in the Eeyou marine region. 

As the most southerly polar bear population in the world, recent evidence suggests that James Bay polar bears may be genetically distinct from others around Hudson Bay. Local bears tend to stay around James Bay year-round.  

Since 2021, McGill University PhD student Alexandra Langwieder has been leading an innovative research project on this population, with about 40 hair snares and camera traps deployed by Cree field teams to collect information on genetics, diet, body conditions and habitat.  

“This can help identify what their movement in the area is and are they returning to the same areas throughout the summer,” explained Varty. “Also, how climate change might be impacting the bears – are they eating things different than before? This year she’ll be doing some additional Cree interviews about diet to provide a more complete picture.”

The EMRWB began documenting Cree traditional ecological knowledge about polar bears in 2017 and has worked with Quebec and Nunavik on a management plan. In October, Coxon will be travelling to Iqaluit, Nunavut, for a meeting to discuss the species’ conservation on an international level. 

As a protected-areas plan is developed and tourism expands around the coastline, polar bear safety workshops are recommended for all guides and boat captains. Working with the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association, tours may be adapted to avoid islands popular with polar bears. 

Crees are permitted to kill up to three polar bears a year but only for reasons of self-defence or public safety. Coxon recommended giving bears plenty of space and to avoid approaching swimming animals to take photos.

“We know it’s disconcerting trying to share your island knowing there’s a polar bear on it,” Coxon acknowledged. “It’s about living in harmony. We’d ask any guides who take people out on the land to be trained in polar bear deterrent methods. The situation might have been avoided if the guides had more resources at their disposal.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.