NORTHERN PENINSULA/SOUTHERN LABRADOR, NL – Reports of polar bear sightings continue to pour in almost every day on the Great Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador.
The first of the reported sightings occurred in St. Lunaire-Griquet on March 6, when Roxanne Peyton captured footage of a polar bear strolling through the streets.
Then on March 8, four polar bears were captured on camera by Vicki Hancock near Red Bay in southern Labrador.
Over the March 10-11 weekend, sightings were reported in St. Anthony and Goose Cove. On March 12, a bear was reported and photographed in Great Brehat.
And on Wednesday, March 14, four polar bears were reported off Fishing Point in St. Anthony.
It is unknown whether the same bears are being reported multiple times or if it’s different bears.
The Department of Fisheries and Land Resources released a statement to the Northern Pen stating that polar bears are frequent visitors to the island portion of the province from mid-winter to mid-spring, travelling to the area on ice floes from the north in search of seals.
St. Anthony local Brent Hedderson believes the area is seeing so many bears because there is a higher seal population this year.
“This year, you’re going to hear talk of more (bears) because the seals are pupping off of St. Anthony,” he said.
In the statement, Fisheries and Land Resources added there is no evidence to suggest polar bears are moving southward in response to melting ice in the Arctic, induced by global warming. The department did not respond prior to the Northern Pen’s deadline on whether reported sightings are up thus far in 2018.
Incident in Great Brehat
Hedderson says he and his family were watching the polar bear in Great Brehat on March 12 when conservation officers arrived and starting firing rubber bullets at the bear to drive it away.
He felt their actions were unnecessary and potentially dangerous since there were multiple people in the area watching the bear.
Hedderson said the bear had gotten hold of a stuffed buffalo head belonging to a local resident. Two wildlife officers soon arrived, and Hedderson says they ran down across the wharf with a gun.
“A gun in one hand, the other hand in his pocket going for the bullets and running,” he said. “It was like something you’d see in movies.”
He says the rubber bullets the officer fired at the bear knocked it over. Hedderson felt the officers should have asked spectators to move out of the way before taking action, and that they should have tried to get the bear to move across the road. He heard it had attempted to cross three times earlier that day, believing it to be heading back on its route to the north.
“Last year on Goose Cove road, (the RCMP) shut down the road for a couple kilometres to allow the bear to cross,” he recalled.
He also wonders what would have happened if the bear reacted by charging towards the crowd.
“They didn’t know how the bear would react towards the bullets,” said Hedderson.
He says after the bear was knocked over, it ran out around the point where it fell over and was rubbing itself on the ice.
“I guess it hurt,” he said.
But Hedderson said the officer then ran up over the hill and down the other side and started shooting the bear again.
He felt this was unwarranted.
“To me that was a bit more than needed,” he said. “I was taken aback. It almost seemed like they wanted to do it just because.”
According to a statement from the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, conservation officers follow protocols detailed in the department’s Polar Bear Control and Management Policy, which include assessing a situation to determine if the animal is a threat to public safety.
The sequence of choices when dealing with polar bears is: aversion techniques including noise repellents and rubber bullets, physical capture, chemical capture and, as a last resort, putting the animal down.
But Hedderson says the officers’ attempt to drive away the bear was only temporarily successful.
Later that evening, it returned to the community and damaged an outdoor hot tub at a local home.
Fisheries and Lands has advised locals not to approach bears and to properly dispose of garbage.
“If an encounter does occur, do not attempt to approach the bear. Do not chase or harass the bear,” the department’s prior statement to the Northern Pen reads. “Always allow the bear to have an escape route without being cornered or threatened and immediately report sightings to local conservation officers.
Communities should ensure garbage, especially seal carcasses and skins, are properly disposed of and not lingering around docks and wharfs since polar bears are a carnivorous species and many individuals often do not have a significant fear of humans.