Polar bear surprised villagers in southeastern Canada | Polarjournal

Polar bears are under increasing pressure due to climate change and are coming ashore more frequently because sea ice is often absent. In search of food, they sometimes come into settlements, which can lead to conflicts with the local people. Photo: Dr Michael Wenger

Polar bears are known for their high mobility, which means that they keep appearing in regions where they are not expected. That’s what happened last Saturday in Madeleine-Centre on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in the Canadian province of Québec, several hundred kilometers south of the typical range. On Sunday morning, authorities decided to shoot the polar bear to ensure the safety of local residents.

Never before had a polar bear been spotted on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, and residents of the small town of Madeleine-Centre at 49 degrees north latitude were very surprised to see the Arctic creature in their community Saturday morning. A man spotted the polar bear less than 30 meters away during his morning walk with his dog. However, the bear had gone back into the forest. Shortly after, the Quebec Provincial Police (Sûreté du Québec) urged people to stay in their homes.

The wildlife agency observed the polar bear from a helicopter and with drones. After initially staying in a wooded area, the bear was spotted near the main road on Sunday morning. Authorities concluded that the danger to Madeleine-Centre residents was too great and decided to kill the bear.

Left: Canada is home to about 16,000 polar bears, which is about two-thirds of the total population in the Arctic. Their typical range extends relatively far south, but not into the St. Lawrence River region. The red dot marks Madeleine-Centre. Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada; Right:Madeleine-Centre is a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River on the Gaspé Peninsula. Map: Google Earth

Sylvain Marois, southeast district commander of the Quebec Wildlife Conservation Authority, said they were not proud of the shooting of the polar bear. They might be able to safely tranquilize and transport smaller bears like black bears, but polar bears are a different story because they can run fast and are very aggressive, he said.

Even though every polar bear killed is one too many, Alysa McCall, staff scientist at Polar Bears International, does not condemn the shooting in this case. Such small communities have neither the equipment nor the financial resources for polar bear traps or deterrents, let alone the experience, unlike the “polar bear capital” of Churchill.

“Non-lethal options are great, but ultimately, of course, human life comes first and foremost,” she said. “One thing that needs to happen in the coming years is broader support for these communities with more options on how to deal with polar bears.”

Occasionally, polar bears are seen wandering along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. As recently as early April, a bear was spotted on the coastal road on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River outside of settlements. At that time, intervention by the authorities was not necessary. It is not known if it was the same bear.

Sea ice still extends far south into the Sankt Lawrence Gulf this spring. Perhaps, the polar bear took advantage of the conditions for its migration south. Map: Canada Ice Service

How the polar bear got to Madelein-Centre could not be explained so far. It may have followed the sea ice southward. Along the coast of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, ice cover is still at about 80 percent and extended into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in late April. From there it probably swam further south.

Polar bears coming ashore in the summer is not uncommon, as the sea ice retreats then. However, as climate change progresses, McCall says polar bear sightings on land could become more frequent as more sea ice is lost.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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