Canadian police have shot and killed a polar bear that wandered into a Quebec community hundreds of kilometres south of the species’ normal territory, in an incident that experts warn could become more common as sea ice coverage becomes more unpredictable thanks to global heating.
The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police service, warned residents this weekend that a polar bear had been spotted near the town of Madeleine-Centre – the first time the Arctic’s apex predator had been spotted in the community.
The bear is believed to have wandered in from sea ice north of the community, but would have needed to swim portions of the St Lawrence River to reach the northern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula.
It was shot dead on Sunday morning – an outcome experts say was inevitable.
“The moment I heard about where this bear was, pensé, ‘this is a dead bear,’” said Andrew Derocher, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta. “I worried it was going to show up someplace where it shouldn’t be, cause a problem, and it’s going to get shot.”
Officials dispatched drones and a helicopter to help locate the bear.
“We work with a lot of things, we work with moose, with deer, with black bears, with everything, but we never dealt with a polar bear,” Sylvain Marois, a district commander at Quebec’s wildlife protection agency, told the Canadian Press.
Derocher, who has spent the last few weeks tracking polar bears over sea ice in the Hudson Bay with his research team, said encounters like this were exceedingly rare and difficult to plan for.
“These bears have never been there before in modern history, so this is not something that I think wildlife agencies can be prepared for.”
En años recientes, sea ice levels across the Arctic have become increasingly erratic and unpredictable – a challenging reality for polar bears, which rely on the vast expanse of ice for their winter and spring feeding.
“We’re seeing more bears spend more time on land – including places where they haven’t been seen before,” said Geoff York, senior director at Polar Bears International. “The deck is really being reshuffled for polar bears – they have less consistency and variability. Things that may have worked for them in the past aren’t working for them today.”
Bears spending more time on the land means the likelihood of encounters with communities only increase, said Derocher.
“I can’t draw a straight line between climate change and events like this. But in general … these events are occurring more and more often. And we predict that they’re going to become more common.”
But successfully capturing and relocating a bear can cost tens of thousands of dollars and requires the right equipment, which officials in Madeleine-Centre didn’t have access to.
While the shooting made headlines across the country, Derocher points out that Inuit and First Nations hunters harvest more than 500 polars bears each year.
“It’s a sustainable harvest and we don’t really bat an eye about that. It may sound a bit callous, but this is a bear that got into a place where it couldn’t stay. There were too many risk issues.”
Conservation officers could have waited hours for the necessary equipment – but the risk to the community was too great, said York.
“The last thing one of these conservation officers wanted to do is put down a bear," él dijo. “They’re just trying to keep people safe, and ideally trying to keep wildlife safe when they can.