For nearly a quarter century, the polar bears of Churchill were routinely run down and shot by the military, by residents and by conservation officers who were brought in during the late 1960s to protect people. According to one scientist who was there at the time, polar bears were treated more like "great white rats" than the world's largest predator. But then something remarkable happened in 1970s. Churchill residents, most of whom are aboriginal, decided that it was time to find a more peaceful way of living with polar bears. The plan that was eventually penned by a committee of concerned citizens and a handful of Manitoba government officials, resulted in what amounted to a polar bear jail for so-called "problem bears" that would otherwise be shot. A more humane protocol for deterring bears was recommended, and opportunities for wildlife viewing were envisioned. The committee also insisted that scientific research and public education needed to guide future management decisions.
In the years that followed, scientists conducted studies on the polar bear's social behavior, their responses to sound and pain, and the impact that three to fourth months of fasting has on their health. Bears were studied
- At the town dump,
- In their dens,
- On the sea ice,
- In an experimental chamber that was set up in an old laundry room at one of the abandoned military buildings.
- They were put on giant treadmills and hooked up to respiratory machines to measure the amount of energy they burned off.
- Some were soaked in oil to see how they would respond to a spill.
In relatively short order, the bears of Churchill became the most studied group of large predators in the world.
The plan was not perfect by any means, and unofficially, it has been a work in progress ever since. There has, however, never been anything quite like it outside of the African Safari system.
The book describes how 1,000 mostly aboriginal people living on the west coast of Hudson Bay found a way to live with 1,000 polar bears.
About the author
Ed Struzik (Edmonton, Alberta) has been called one of Canada's "pre-eminent modern-day explorers" by Canadian Geographic. His travels by foot, ski, dog team, canoe, kayak, icebreaker and helicopter have taken him to the remotest corners of the polar world. Struzik is the author of two previous books and the recipient of more than 30 awards for his writing. In 2008 Struzik was awarded a ‘Special Merit’ Grantham Prize for Environmental Journalism, and was the recipient of the 18th annual Atkinson Fellowship, which allowed him to travel through the north for a year, researching the changes that are taking place.
"An elegantly written and beautifully illustrated work. . . Struzik is the right person to author this book. On his first visit to Churchill in 1983 he was eyewitness to the town's last fatal mauling. He isn't blinkered about the dangers of these animals to humans. He clearly loves them, but both his text and photographs are sometimes clear about the violence the animals are capable of. Arctic Icons emerges as an environmental book that honestly addresses the tenuous relationship between modern society and the natural world. Faced with a formidable challenge, the citizens of Churchill, working alongside scientists, have done a remarkable job of coexisting with bears. 'Flawed and controversial as the management of these animals has sometimes been,' Struzik writes, 'it is arguably one of the most successful conservation success stories in North American history.'"
— Alaska Dispatch News
"Struzik provides a thorough, candid narrative of the history and management practices surrounding polar bears, including existing challenges and emerging opportunities. Much of the book comprises vignettes that provide context and examples of human/wildlife conflicts and conservation efforts. Ultimately, in a world where the sea ice in western Hudson Bay is projected to disappear before the end of the current century, additional funding and scientific advice may not be sufficient to save polar bears in this part of the world. However, it is still crucial to derive lessons and best practices from previous undertakings so that effective polar bear management strategies can be developed and implemented widely among remaining populations."
— Choice Magazine