Great Canadian Parks / Manitoba

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The Parks / Manitoba / Wapusk National Park



Wapusk is the Cree name for the White Bear, which has come to symbolize this area. Polar bears are the largest terrestrial carnivore, weighing an average 1000 lbs. Despite their size, they can travel at speeds up to 30 m/hr. They can pick up a scent 32 km away and detect a seal buried under 3 feet of snow and ice. They have no natural enemies and no fear.


Mating occurs out on the ice during the spring. As the ice melts, the bears are forced on shore. The warm water currents from the Churchill River cause ice dams to form southward along the coast in the fall; consequently, it is here that the bears return each summer to await the winter freeze. During the autumn months, pregnant females make their dens, digging a hole in the face of an esker, which will be sheltered by snow once winter comes. Cubs are born in March and stay with the mother for two years. Should the cubs survive, the female will not be available to mate again for 2-3 years.


It is rare to see males and females together on land. Males will attack unprotected cubs in order to make the females available to breed. The population at Churchill, numbering some 1200 bears, seems to have staked out territories for mothers with cubs, mature males and immature males - the teenagers who engage in fascinating play fights to the delight of spectators.


While the bears are out on the sea ice, their primary job is to build their fat reserves, feeding almost exclusively on ringed seal. Polar bears begin to congregate here in July as their feeding grounds out on the bay disappear. They spend four months on land, essentially without food, until the ice forms again around the end of October. A pregnant female will go into a den for close to nine months and when she emerges with her cubs, still be able to trek between 60 and 100 kilometres back to the coast. During their time on land, the bears lose an enormous amount of weight, but surprisingly not muscle mass, since they live off their stored fat. One tagged female weighing in at a mere 115 kilograms after the birth of her cub in the spring, when recaptured the following year, had bulked up to 400 kilograms.


Dr. Malcolm Ramsey of the University of Saskatchewan has been pioneering research into the metabolic processes of these bears with the hope that humans can learn something from these ’classic yo-yo dieters’. Through the course of his research, Ramsey has tagged and catalogued more than 4000 bears (as of 1996), making the Churchill polar bears the best censused population in the world.

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