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On Thin Ice with Churchill's Polar Bears

polar bear lift in Churchill

Sarah Gold

All of us had heard mention of Churchill’s “polar bear jail.” A hangar-shaped building on the outskirts of town, it was where “problem bears”—ones that’d been found prowling downtown streets or nosing into residents’ backyards—were taken after capture by the town’s polar bear patrol. Patrollers run a year-round, 24-hour hotline for residents who spot a bear in town; when called, they employ a variety of tactics (like firing noisemaking “crackers” from 12-gauge shotguns) to scare the bear off. If it’s persistent, though, they set a live trap, or shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart, and take it to the holding facility before bringing it back to the tundra 35 or 40 miles away.

On the final morning of our trip, Eric told us we were in for a rare surprise. The bear patrol, he’d learned, was scheduled to airlift a bear via helicopter that very day; though that was seldom seen by tour groups, we’d be stopping by the “jail” to watch the event.

“There are quite a few bears in there right now,” Eric said, referring to the holding facility. “Once they’ve been tagged and had their vitals logged, the patrollers try to get them back out as soon as possible.”

“How many is ‘quite a few’?” I asked, figuring maybe a half-dozen bears were brazen enough to have ventured downtown in a single season.

“Twenty,” Eric said, solemnly.

Later, outside the holding facility, we stood cordoned in a parking area far from the building. It was bitterly cold. The temperature when we’d woken up that morning had been -16 degrees; now a brutal gust had kicked up, numbing our exposed cheeks and blurring our eyes with tears.

By the time the hangar doors opened, it had started to snow. Through the driving flakes, we watched as a jeep with a flatbed trailer emerged. Lying atop it was a colossal mass the color of dirty cream: the tranquilized bear, sprawled on a stretcher. Working quickly, a cadre of patrollers, like pallbearers, lowered the bear to rest atop a net spread on the ground; once it was fastened, a whirring helicopter that had been hovering overhead hooked the net with a long length of rope. Then, its cargo secured, the helicopter lifted.

For a moment we all gaped at the surreal sight of the bear, curled supine in the net, hoisted high above our heads like a bag of laundry. Then the copter pivoted and began to pull away, heading north toward the far-off tundra where it would make its deposit. The next day, it would make another, and then another.

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