Why these Ontario polar bears are ready for their close-ups

American researchers were looking for the ideal place to test aerial-imaging technology for detecting animals in the wild — and they found it at the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane
By Claude Sharma - Published on April 17, 2019
Ganuk, who weighs in at nearly 1,100 pounds, was born in Quebec in 2009. (Courtesy Mathilde Loubeyres.)



Ganuk presses up against one of the fences of his large enclosure and devours one of his several daily meals: a combination of mackerel and moose and seal meat. Such fat- and protein-rich foods are staples of the nearly 1,100-pound polar bear’s diet at the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, about 100 kilometres northeast of Timmins.

Thousands of visitors each year marvel at the massive Ganuk, who was born in Quebec in 2009. But he’s not the only attraction — just the heaviest one. The municipally owned Habitat, which opened in 2004, is also home to his father, Inukshuk, who arrived four months after Ganuk in 2012; Henry, who was born in Australia; and newcomers Eddy and Taiga (Ganuk’s twin sister), who joined the group in February and will be staying in Cochrane while Quebec City’s aquarium undergoes renovations.

And it’s not just tourists who visit the 24-acre facility — the largest of its kind in the world and the only one, says Dylan McCart, Habitat’s conservation coordinator, to “focus strictly on polar bears.”

In early April, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, travelled from Seattle to the Habitat in Cochrane. For five days, a four-person team used drone technology outfitted with ultraviolet, thermal, and visual cameras to collect aerial imagery of the bears while they were in a resting state and coming out of cold water — all part of an effort to improve remote sensing of animals in the wild.

“In Cochrane, we don't have to go out into the wild and try to find bears exhibiting those behaviours,” says project lead and zoologist Erin Moreland, whose primary research focus involves working to develop techniques for surveying ice-associated seals in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi seas.

“To collect polar-bear data, in addition to [data about] their prey, ice-associated seals, it gives us an opportunity to maximize the amount of information that comes with the survey effort.”

It’s thought that there are between 22,000 and 31,000 polar bears in the world, living in 19 sub-populations in the Arctic — precise numbers don’t exist, because populations are determined by abundance estimates based on aerial surveys and on genetic mark-recapture programs run by provincial and territorial governments in Canada. Such approaches, though, can be expensive, and remote regions can be difficult to access. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, for example, the last time polar-bear populations were tracked in the Lancaster Sound, in northern Canada, was more than 20 years ago. “For the number of polar bears that we have, Canada does a pretty good job of trying to keep up with counting, but it could be better,” says Brandon Laforest, a senior specialist in Arctic species and ecosystems for the World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Getting solid and comprehensive data about the polar-bear population is an increasingly urgent matter. Earlier this year, Environment and Climate Change Canada released a new report that found that Canada is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world. “One aspect of climate change that is really noticeable and really graphic is the loss of sea ice in the Arctic and the decline of seasonal sea ice or the extension of ice-free periods across the Arctic, especially here in Canada,” says Laforest. And that’s a serious problem for the bears, who rely on sea ice to hunt, breed, and travel.

Laforest says that having more information about how polar-bear populations are faring — whether they’re stable or in trouble — will allow activists and researchers to issue more calls to action and make cases for stronger policies.

The NOAA has used its drone units to study sea lions in Alaska since 2014 — this April, in Cochrane, marks the first time they're being used on polar bears. Moreland says that this type of tech can travel faster and higher, covering more ground in colder places and employing higher-resolution cameras. The photos they produce will eventually be paired with a software program that, she believes, will further boost detection rates.

The project reflects a new strategic direction for the Habitat. When it opened 15 years ago, attracting visitors was a primary focus. But the facility’s new executive director, Michael Honeth, has a different vision: while he says that tourism remains important, he is also “planning an emphasis on research and education.” To that end, he’s looking into the possibility of building a state-of-the-art centre onsite so that scientists from around the world can conduct research on polar bears. (The Town of Cochrane received $70,000 in FedNor funding this month; the money will go toward a feasibility study and business plan.)

Moreland says that her team was able to take photos of all five bears. Some of the images will be used to improve their species-classification model, making it easier for the technology to identify the animals.

The Habitat welcomes the prospect of better polar-bear tracking technology — and better data. “Our whole motto is that we want to save polar bears,” says McCart.

“Any new sources that we can come up with that help better figure out accurate numbers on bears involving non-invasive research — that can help the entire species, and that is our whole purpose of being here.”

Correction: An original version of this article indicated that the NOAA has used its drone units to track polar bears in the wild since 2016; in fact, the project in Cochrane marks the first time they've been used on polar bears. TVO.org regrets the error. 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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