Bear species found together in the wild for the first time

Three bear species have been sighted in the same area for the first time, raising a debate about habitat, repopulation and climate change in the process. 

So, while the panda in our header image may be somewhat misleading (any excuse to reference We Bare Bears shall be unapologetically taken), the three bear species; grizzly, polar and black, have never been seen before, and that’s definitely cause for investigation.

Until now, it’s always been accepted that black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears maintain different habitats. Douglas Clark who works in the Environment & Sustainability faculty of the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, posted about the find.

In his article, which ran on The Conversation, Clark enthusiastically displayed the findings of a study which he and his colleagues began back in 2011, in Wapusk National Park, Canada. Originally examining the influx of polar bears to the region ( they had been arriving in unprecedented numbers), the team set up an array of remote cameras, so that they could document the animals without disturbing them.

The cameras picked up more than 366 visits by polar bears to the camps in five years,” says Clark, “They also detected other bears.”

Observing the polar bears, Clark then noticed that there were other appearances being made by local grizzlies. This wasn’t, in itself a complete oddity, but the numbers in which they showed up, as well as the frequency of their visits surprised the team.

“Wapusk is best known for its polar bears. They come ashore in the summer and autumn when the sea ice in Hudson Bay melts. Some stay for the winter to den in the permafrost where they give birth. What we see on the cameras reflects that pattern.

But Wapusk also lies along the northern edge of the boreal forest, where black bears are well established. We saw them too, but we were surprised that their visits to our most southerly cameras, on the Owl River, were almost as numerous as those by polar bears.” – Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan

Black bears are well established in the boreal forest of Wapusk National Park. (Douglas Clark), CC BY-ND

This is where the climate change elements are brought into the story. Clark suggests that the irregular movements of the bears is indicative of a changing arctic climate. “Three dynamic ecosystems — forest, tundra and ocean — converge at Wapusk, and all are changing quickly as the Arctic warms,” he says. 

“What we’ve seen in Wapusk is consistent with how researchers expect northern carnivore populations to respond to climate change. The waking life of all bear species is governed by their need to accumulate fat stores for the next hibernation, so this overlap is most likely a response to changes in the availability of bear foods. Which foods, however, we don’t yet know.” – Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan

Grizzly bears visited all three study sites along the coast of Wapusk National Park. (Douglas Clark), CC BY-ND

Clark is, however, very balanced in his hypothesis, examining other potential factors which could have contributed to the unusual behavior and statistics.

“When environmental changes occur in national parks, they often become controversial. People often assume the conditions present when the park was established, or the status quo, are “baselines” that must be protected, even though they may just be snapshots in ecological time.

Change has become increasingly central in ecological theory, and its implications have produced heated debate within the conservation community.” – Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan

The ‘heated debate’ which Clark refers to is only getting hotter. Yesterday, Federal officials in the US published a mammoth, damning climate change report which paints a bleak future for the country.

Three polar bears walk past a camera trap in Wapusk National Park. (Douglas Clark), CC BY-ND

One of the results of the report was that of climate refugees; not all of which will be human.

“Climate change will continue to move species around and create new combinations of them. It’s no easy task for wildlife or park managers to determine which environmental changes are desirable and which aren’t.

Wapusk, however, is a co-managed park that aims to integrate scientific and traditional knowledge with human values. It is equipped for addressing these hard questions. And the question of how to navigate increasing environmental variability more effectively — while recognizing the stakes local people have in these conservation decisions — is the biggest challenge environmental managers face today.” – Douglas Clark, University of Saskatchewan

While it may be intriguing to see species mingle such as this, it could be indicative of an insidious motivation. Issues such as food, habitat, hunting and protection all play a part, but as the proof for climate change constantly increases, the argument is becoming less relevant than the steps which will need to be taken to avoid a global catastrophe.

Colin J McCracken
Colin J McCracken

Director and Executive Editor

Colin J McCracken is an Irish editor and writer of both fiction and journalism. Coming from a background in education and film, his passions are split between the environmental and the entertaining. Constantly striving for a more sustainable existence and trying to balance it while simultaneously buying too many books.