Non-profit ‘polar bear radar’ aims to warn northern towns of unexpected visitors


Residents of William’s Harbor recently had to clean up damage from a polar bear that broke into nearly every home in the Labrador community. Today, a Manitoba non-profit organization hopes to warn people like them that a bear is coming to town soon.

The bear kicked down doors, smashed windows and ate people’s food on Friday. He also tore up a sofa and scattered clothes in the small community, about 441 kilometers southeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“It’s pretty rare, this much damage,” said Cliff Russell, whose home was damaged. “I think maybe somewhere along the line he found some food in a shack somewhere or something. And now it just seems like he knows pretty well how to break in .”

Russell said it seems like more bears are coming through the community each year and he wants to see more bear permits issued to local hunters. But the provincial government says the increase in polar bear sightings this year is the result of sea ice conditions and the distribution of seals, not a higher number of actual bears, and it doesn’t are not planning to increase the number of hunting permits.

The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, said the latest count of the Davis Strait polar bear population, in 2017-2018, recorded 2,015 bears, which are designated “vulnerable”, no threatened by the government.

The polar bear ate food in the houses and damaged various objects, including this sofa. (Submitted by Rebecca Larkham)

Russell said if a seal hunt was allowed in the area it would drive the bears away because there would be fewer seals to eat.

“There was a time when we traveled the coast and never had to worry about bears and now it seems like you almost have to carry a gun when you’re on Ski-Doo, especially when it’s not there aren’t a lot of people,” Russell said. . “You wouldn’t want to break down and have to walk home and run into one.”

The polar bear made its way into a shed in William’s Harbour, knocking a door off its hinges. (Hayward Larkham/Facebook)

Harm prevention — for humans and bears — the goal

When it comes to situations like William’s Harbour, a bear climbing on a roof in St. Anthony, or a bear trying to break into a house with a mother and daughter inside in Conche, a non-profit organization nonprofit is working to create an artificial intelligence radar tower that can warn people in advance.

BJ Kirschhoffer, director of field operations for Polar Bear International, says that whenever polar bears and humans overlap, there’s the potential for harm to both humans and bears.

“The more tools we can give people as advance warning, it gives people more time to react to the situation and maybe have a better outcome for people and polar bears.”

Polar bears are pictured on the ice near Pinsent’s Arm, about 100 kilometers from William’s Harbour. (Submitted by Brendon Clark)

The nonprofit is testing three types of speed cameras at its site near Churchill, Manitoba, dubbed the “polar bear capital of the world” in hopes of creating one that could be used across the world. Arctic, because the radar does not rely on cameras. and can be used in harsh winter conditions.

The nonprofit started working with a radar company, SpotterRF, and quickly learned that its radar in Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park picks up everything – so there must be a way to filter out motion alerts. unwanted.

The Polar Bear International radar station is located at Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park in Manitoba. (KT Miller/Polar Bears International)

Polar Bear International has programmed SpotterRF’s AI system with the movements of different animals and is currently testing it.

“If we can continue to filter and focus only on what we want to see, polar bears, this tool could potentially become quite powerful,” Kirschoffer said. “We really need to have a high degree of accuracy if humans are going to rely on it for their safety.”

Smarter than your average bears

But the radar has missed a few bears in the years it’s been operating due to the nature of their movements, Kirchoffer said.

Radar works by “pinging” at something in motion; after a certain number of pings, it can confirm that something exists. But a polar bear that isn’t motivated by food or mating walks slowly to conserve energy and often stops to smell, he says.

“Polar bears have more or less innately exploited the weakness of radar,” Kirschhoffer said. “The polar bear, with its stop-and-sniff method, kind of made it a hard target to track.”

BJ Kirschhoffer installs a radar on the Cape Churchill tower. (Polar Bear International)

A community that wants to try a system can apply for a grant to fund construction of the radar tower — an estimated cost of $50,000, Kirschoffer said.

“It could be a pretty powerful tool to move communities forward,” he said.

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