Prepared by Melissa Tonge and Tanya Pulfer

Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) or Wabusk in Cree, are the largest terrestrial carnivores in the world and occur throughout the circumpolar Arctic of the northern hemisphere. The coastal areas of Hudson and James Bay in Ontario have approximately 900 individuals and these bears comprise the southernmost population of Polar Bears in the world. Polar Bears are listed as threatened on the Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) List and as special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The distribution of Polar Bears in Ontario is influenced primarily by two factors: the type and distribution of sea ice and the density and distribution of seals. While Polar Bears live on land during part of the year, they carry out several critical life functions such as feeding and mating on sea ice. Maternal denning sites, spring feeding areas and fall staging areas are the three most critical components of Polar Bear habitat. Spring feeding areas are on sea ice whereas denning sites and staging areas occur on land. Polar Bears are found in high densities along the Ontario coast of Hudson Bay and the western coast of James Bay north of Attiwapiskat during the ice free season, typically between mid-July and November. This area is critically important for staging and resting for males and non-pregnant females. For denning, Polar Bears in Ontario commonly use palsas, eskers, elevated beach ridges and peat banks within 120 kilometres inland of the coastline. Research indicates there is some fidelity to general denning areas, though not necessarily to individual dens.

The greatest threats to Ontario’s Polar Bears are habitat alterations due to climate change and an increase in mortality resulting from human-bear interactions. Climate change will result in a loss of sea ice habitat and maternal denning habitat. These changes will have the greatest impact on the survival of cubs and older bears. A loss of habitat and food sources because of climate change will increase the number of human-bear encounters. These encounters can threaten the safety of both Polar Bears and humans. Although current harvest levels of Polar Bears appear to be sustainable, there is potential for the harvest to become unsustainable in the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation.

The recovery goal for the Polar Bear in Ontario is to have a viable sub-population that can persist in a changing environment and supports traditional uses of Polar Bears by coastal Cree communities.

The recovery objectives are to:

  • reduce the impact of global climate change within Ontario;
  • identify, protect and adaptively co-manage Polar Bear habitat in Ontario;
  • conduct research to fill knowledge gaps that will aid in the recovery and protection of Polar Bears and their habitat;
  • maximize Cree and Ontario’s participation in inter-jurisdictional Polar Bear management and research in the Hudson and James Bay eco-region;
  • develop and implement effective monitoring strategies for Polar Bear, including community based monitoring;
  • minimize incidental mortalities of Polar Bears;
  • enhance communication and information sharing with coastal Cree communities and stakeholder groups on Polar Bear biology and management; and
  • explore viable, sustainable and complementary activities to existing traditional harvesting of Polar Bear.

It is recommended that the Ontario coastline from the Manitoba border to Ekwan Point in James Bay, and extending 5 kilometres inland, be prescribed as habitat in the habitat regulation for Polar Bears under the Endangered Species Act, 2007. The community of Fort Severn, including a 5 kilometre area around it, should be excluded from the area prescribed in the habitat regulation since this represents unsuitable habitat for Polar Bears due to human development (i.e., housing and community infrastructure, airport and landfill).

Beyond the coastline, active dens and features that are unoccupied but appear suitable for denning should also be prescribed as Polar Bear habitat. Palsas over 1.5 metres tall, eskers, elevated beach ridges and peat banks surrounding lakes within 120 kilometres of the coast should be prescribed as habitat. It is also recommended that 500 metres around active dens also be prescribed as Polar Bear habitat so as to minimize the potential for den abandonment. The area between the Winisk and Severn Rivers is of particular importance for denning due to the high density of suitable palsas in the area.

The habitat needs for Polar Bears are expected to shift with a changing climate. Their reliance on terrestrial areas is expected to increase with earlier melting of sea ice in summer and later forming of sea ice in fall. Key aspects of the terrestrial habitat that are expected to change are the melting and inability of palsas to form and an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Therefore, it is recommended that the use of habitat by Polar Bears be reviewed every fifteen years with scientific experts and coastal Cree communities.

Guidance from coastal Cree communities based on their unique knowledge, perspectives and practices will be important to Polar Bear protection and recovery activities. In implementing the recommendations of this recovery strategy, Ontario should be mindful of Aboriginal and treaty rights protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and meet any obligations to consult with Aboriginal peoples where its actions may adversely affect an established or asserted Aboriginal or treaty right.