Polar bear attacks on humans are rare. In almost all cases, the polar bear in question was undernourished, frightened, or provoked. However, scientists expect human-polar bear encounters to increase as more polar bears spend more time onshore due to longer ice-free seasons.
Such encounters have already started to happen. Over the past few years, sea ice losses have led to more polar bear sightings in northern coastal communities and an uptick in human-polar bear encounters. Some of these have had tragic endings, for both humans and the bears.
Can a community learn to live with polar bears? Hundreds of polar bears gather near Churchill, Manitoba, every fall to wait for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay. Yet since 1717, only two townspeople have ever been killed by polar bears.
- In 1968, local teenagers followed tracks through fresh snow, found a polar bear, and threw rocks at him. The bear attacked and killed one of them. The bear was shot.
- In 1983, a local man scavenging in the recently burned ruins of the Churchill Hotel found meat in the freezer and stuffed his pockets full. A polar bear, attracted by the smell, killed the man. The bear was shot.
Attitudes towards the bears have changed over the years. Long ago, wandering bears in Churchill were shot as food for sled dogs. And during World War II, servicemen at an air base east of Churchill killed bears and shipped the trophies home.
Today, most Churchill residents are proud of the town's designation as the polar bear capital of the world and go to great lengths to protect the bears that support the town's thriving eco-tourism industry.
In 1982, Churchill built a holding facility to house problem bears that come too close to town during the fall migration and Manitoba Conservation has developed a highly successful Polar Bear Alert Program. The program has reduced—but not eliminated—polar bear-human encounters. Both residents and visitors are urged to be "on the alert" during polar bear season, always keeping an eye out for polar bears that might wander into town.