Grizzlies are now ‘regular residents’ of Manitoba after a jump in sightings in recent years

Grizzly bears are so often spotted in northern Manitoba that a new study concludes they are now “regular residents” of that province, especially along the Hudson Bay coast.

In the March issue of the academic publication Arctica team of wildlife experts led by Doug Clark of the University of Saskatchewan investigated every suspected or confirmed sighting of grizzly bears over the past four decades in Manitoba and found that large bears were being sighted more and more frequently.

Of 133 confirmed sightings since 1980, 103 occurred in the 2010s, a fivefold increase from the previous decade, the researchers found.

“We’ve seen grizzly bear sightings more than double every decade since the 1980s,” said Clark, an associate professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

“It’s not just a wandering bear anymore. It’s pretty clearly something else going on.”

That something may not just be an increase in bear visitation likely coming down the Hudson Bay coast from Nunavut, Clark said. One of the sightings involved a mother grizzly with two cubs, suggesting but not confirming that grizzlies are now breeding in Manitoba, Clark said.

“I think that’s most likely correct. However, we don’t call it confirmed because there are implications for what it would mean for the province,” he said, explaining that the presence of a confirmed breeding population could trigger a management plan for the species.

“We need a pretty high standard of proof there.”

A provincial spokesperson said Department of Natural Resources and Northern Development officials are aware of Clark’s research, but stressed there was no confirmation that grizzly bears were breeding here.

Clark said he would be “astounded if, given what we are seeing, there are no breeding grizzlies in Manitoba,” but at present most grizzlies have been seen in the park. Wapusk National and in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, where cubs have not been spotted.

3 species of bears in the same place

This grizzly was captured by a wildlife camera in Wapusk National Park in 2017. (University of Saskatchewan paper/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coast is the only place in the world where grizzly bears, polar bears and black bears have been confirmed to coexist.

Clark said the apparent increase in grizzly bear numbers has implications for black bears, which tend to live inland from the coast, and polar bears, which only frequent the coast during months when there is no ice on Hudson Bay.

“There’s a whole variety of things that happen when grizzlies and polar bears come together: grizzlies kill polar bears, grizzlies and polar bears also mate, and you have everything that happens between the two,” he said.

Grizzlies also tend to overpower black bears when the two species overlap, but younger grizzlies can have trouble if they encounter older black bears, he said.

“The fact that there is an established population of black bears that tend to live a bit more inland in northern Manitoba may limit the spread of grizzly bears or their extent,” Clark said.

Effect on humans

There are also implications for people in northern Manitoba. While the Cree and Inuit have observed grizzly bears in northern Manitoba for centuries, oral histories and historical records suggest they haven’t encountered the species in large numbers, Clark said.

“People in northern Manitoba know a lot about how to deal with polar bears and they also know a lot about how to deal with black bears. Grizzlies are new,” he said.

“Grizzlies behave a little differently than polar bears and black bears most of the time.”

For example, while polar bears tend to force their way through cabin doors or windows, grizzly bears can open them, Clark said. This has implications for how northerners design their homes and cabins, he added.

A spokesperson for the province says it receives several reports a year of grizzly bear sightings along the Hudson Bay coast and staff also occasionally see the animals.

The province is advising Manitobans that it is illegal to kill grizzly bears and urging people to minimize conflict with animals.

Clark said more research needs to be done to find out why grizzly bears seem to be expanding their range and precisely where they are going.

One mystery he would like to solve is where grizzly bears go in early fall, as there have been few sightings along the Hudson Bay coast in September, even though scientists wildlife guard the area year-round.

“There’s a big gap between late summer and when bears typically enter their dens,” he said. “We don’t know where the bears are.”