Hundreds of bears gather every winter in the town of Churchill, Manitoba, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they can return to hunting seals. This annual migration attracts thousands of tourists, and it's an economic boon for local businesses.
The problem? Polar bear season only lasts seven weeks. And when you’re hundreds of miles from the next major city, with no roads connecting you to the outside world, and there are only a few months of the year when the ground’s not covered in snow, there aren’t many options for work. Here in Churchill, Manitoba, population 800, there are three.
Tourism, the port of Churchill and the town's health center are the options, says Mayor Mike Spence.
The port, which sends grain to Europe, and the health center employ about 10 percent of the town. About 10,000 tourists a year travel here to see polar bears. They stay in local hotels and lodges, and ride on roving jeeps called tundra buggies.
As long as the bears are here, people will pay as much as $1,000 a day to come. But with the season lasting only two months, residents have a narrow window to make their main chunk of revenue — revenue that could disappear along with these animals. Scientists predict that if current warming trends continue, this population of polar bears could be gone in only a few decades. So, what does that mean for this town's future?
“When the last bear leaves town, so does everything else,” says Spence. “Big question is: How do we become more successful in year-round parts of our community?”
One potential resource could be increased promotion and tourism for the summer beluga whale season, he says. Some locals, like security guard Brendan Windsor, agree.
“There’s more than just bears to see around here,” Windsor says. “Beluga whales, lots of bird watching, flower season.”
But the mayor admits that's not enough. Ironically, global warming could open up the Northwest passage and benefit the port. But it wouldn't be enough to make up for the end of polar bear tourism.
“If we were to lose a part of it, or in time lose all of it, it would be very difficult to recover what it brings to the economy," he says.
Everyone agrees the next few years are critical. Churchill is cooperating with international research groups to bring awareness to the polar bears' plight, even live-streaming their annual migration. Because if the bears go, this town might not be far behind.