Polar bears in Ontario are at the southern limit of their species’ range. As part of the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation, these roughly 800 bears migrate onto land when the sea ice of Hudson Bay melts completely each summer. On shore, polar bears primarily fast and rely on stored fat for energy. With increasing global temperatures, spring sea-ice retreat is occurring progressively earlier, while fall freeze-up is later, thus extending the ice free-period by approximately one month relative to the 1980s. With less time to forage in spring in preparation for a longer on-shore fast, the body condition, survival, and reproduction of polar bears in Southern Hudson Bay has suffered. Recent declines in population abundance have contributed to polar bears being listed as a threatened species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.
The Cree people of the Hudson Bay lowlands have coexisted with polar bears for millennia. Members of the Weenusk (Peawanuck), Fort Severn, Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, and Moose Cree First Nations may encounter polar bears while hunting, fishing, or traveling on the land. With polar bears spending more time on land, concurrent with declining body condition and potentially increasing nutritional stress, the risk of human-polar bear conflict may be rising.
"Our research aims to advance polar bear management and conservation and explore opportunities for joint knowledge production related to human-polar bear interactions in Ontario. The primary goal of this research is to reduce the risk of human-polar bear conflict, now and in the future," says Professor Gregory Thiemann. "Achieving this goal will both reduce the risk of injury to people and reduce the number of polar bears killed in defense of life or property," he adds.
In collaboration with Moose Cree First Nation, and expanding to other coastal First Nations, the project's specific research objectives are to (1) quantify the frequency human-polar bear conflict; (2) identify environmental and ecological drivers of conflict, so as to predict where and when conflict may occur; and (3) develop and implement effective methods for mitigating human-polar bear conflict.
In December 2021, Thiemann with PhD alumnus Paul McCarney along with research scientists from the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Polar Bears International, worked with local first responders in Moose Factory to conduct training on non-lethal deterrence methods. Future work will involve interviews and workshops with active hunters, elders and other community members. Specific areas to be explored include the frequency and behaviour of bears near communities or encountered on the land, the age and sex class of problem bears, the role of local attractants (e.g., refuse, country foods), interactions with dogs or dog food, and potential disturbance of traplines or seasonal hunting camps.
Ultimately, the project aims to develop and implement effective and community-relevant detection and deterrence protocols to meaningfully reduce rates of human-bear conflict. The specific research activities (i.e., interviews, meetings, data collection and management, analysis, publication, and implementation) will be conducted with broader consideration of decolonizing and Indigenous research. The project is supported by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Government of Ontario, and WWF-Canada.
Given the multiple, interacting factors that potentially contribute to human-bear conflict, Indigenous knowledge, and more specifically, the Cree approach to understanding ecological complexity, will provide crucial insights. Ultimately, this research aims to produce community- and context-specific actions that improve human safety, reduce polar bear mortality, and facilitate the traditional subsistence activities of the Cree People.
Greg Thiemann's research focuses on the foraging ecology and conservation of Arctic carnivores. Much of his research involves the use of biochemical tracers to examine the diets of carnivores. His work involves collaboration with federal, provincial, municipal, and territorial government agencies and partnership with northern Indigenous communities. He has ongoing collaborative research with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Government of Nunavut, and the Toronto Zoo.