It's the type of news that generates both excitement and fear in a community. A polar bear has been spotted, and the authorities are sounding the alarm bells. News releases are issued, officers with guns and sirens are mobilized and parents start corralling their children. Curiosity seekers bound into their cars, hoping to catch a rare glimpse of this majestic, powerful and cuddly looking creature.
It's become a near ritual each spring in parts of this province as Arctic ice floes begin crowding our northern shores, bringing with it a veritable buffet — at least if you're a polar bear — of pupping harp and hooded seals. And oftentimes, it doesn't end well for the bear.
That was the case in two instances in this province in recent days, with police officers shooting and killing marauding bears in Goose Cove, a small village near St. Anthony, and in Greenspond, Bonavista Bay.
In both cases, the bears were deemed a threat to public safety and were justifiably dispatched. In St. Anthony, the bear killed livestock and broke into at least one house, fraying nerves in an area where bear sightings are to be expected this time of year. In Greenspond, the bear tried to enter a lighthouse, and then started making its way towards the community, where local children were under lockdown in their school.
The officer who shot the bear in Greenspond said he felt bad about killing the endangered species, but added he would have felt worse if he didn't take any action and someone was hurt or killed.
The incidents made national headlines, and had many debating whether it was necessary to kill the bears. It's a worthwhile debate, and one we feel obliged to weigh in on.
Those who say problem bears should be tranquillized and relocated need to be more realistic. It can take hours for conservation officers to reach some locations. And even when a bear is immobilized, a helicopter is most often required to airlift the animal. The time these measures take are often a luxury that officers on the scene cannot afford. And is it practical to suggest that police officers be armed with tranquillizer guns? Not likely.
Let's be clear about one thing: a polar bear, the world's largest land carnivore, is a very dangerous animal, and a very capable hunter. They can swim in the ocean for great distances, can smell a seal through the thickest of ice, and can patiently and persistently stalk its prey for long periods. And polar bear attacks are very often fatal.
Experts say a well-fed bear — those spotted in recent days appear quite fleshy — is unlikely to attack humans, and is more likely to flee, but they remain extremely unpredictable and have been known to kill and sometimes eat humans.
We rarely hear of such deadly attacks because most bears live in areas where the human population is quite small.
One expert stated last week that while some countries in Europe refer to such encounters as human-bear interaction, we tend to use the phrase human-bear conflict. With that mindset, the outcome of such encounters is more likely to end badly for the bear. Though in Churchill, Manitoba, special measures are taken to ward off approaching bears, including vehicle horns and other noise-makers, and the local dump was also closed in recent years.
But we're a province that covers a huge land mass, and having the resources in place in all areas to handle such encounters is not possible. The answer is to remain vigilant, take precautions and respect the danger that lurks off our shores. Authorities should be encouraged to take drastic measures when deemed necessary, but only as a last resort.
— Terry Roberts