Environmental stewards from First Nations on the coast of James Bay will be gathering in northern Ontario this week to learn how to best deal with polar bears that are straying into their communities.
Karen Cummings of the Polar Bear Habitat, a polar bear reserve in Cochrane, Ont., says several James Bay communities had polar bears within their town limits for the first time in years in 2016.
Cummings says she knows of at least eight instances between December 2015 and December 2016, and adds that climate change is believed to be behind the increasing number of bears moving into towns in search of food.
She says polar bears are a new problem for certain northern Ontario communities such as Moose Factory — where a polar bear turned up at the dump — and are very rare for communities like Kashechewan and Attawapiskat.
Cummings says a workshop set to begin in Fort Albany First Nation on Tuesday aims to teach Mushkegowuk environmental stewards ways of deterring bears and how to live-trap the animals if necessary to remove them from town. She says the goal is for the environmental stewards to adapt those techniques to each communities’ unique circumstances.
Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Jonathon Solomon says the workshop is just one step of potentially many that will be taken to ensure the security of the First Nations communities.
“We know climate change is affecting our communities now,” Solomon said. “We know actions must be taken to learn and respond to these changes.”
Cummings said she and others from the Polar Bear Habitat would be driving the ice road to Fort Albany from Cochrane on Monday.
There was no reason previously for communities such as Moose Factory, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat to prepare for polar bears entering their towns, she said.
But the currents in James Bay are altering because of climate change, Cummings said, and ice that is flowing in a different direction could be what caused the bear issue in the communities last year.
“Without tools or training, their officials reacted appropriately to ensure the safety of their community, and in almost every case, were forced to dispatch the bears,” Cummings said.
Kashechewan, for instance, had four polar bear incursions, she said, and she believed three of the bears had to be killed. The fourth was a cub that was reunited with its mother, she said.
“The number one thing is to make sure the polar bears don’t get to the town to begin with, second is to deter them, third is put them in a live trap and move them out of town and release them again,” Cummings said.
The Mushkegowuk environmental stewards, who help communities with environmental decision-making using contemporary knowledge while incorporating indigenous values, will also be trained on how to scare the bears away if they do enter a community, she said, calling live-trapping and relocation a “worst-care scenario.”
Cummings said loud noises and “flashy things” can be used to keep the bears out of town.
“There is going to be some training with rubber bullets, there’s going to be some training with flares and bangers that make noise,” she said, adding that “it does depend on the bear — every bear has a different personality.”