Non-profit's 'polar bear radar' aims to warn northern towns about unexpected visitors

·4 min read
A polar bear broke windows, smashed down doors and scattered clothing before leaving William's Harbour, Labrador, last week. (Submitted by Hayward and Rebecca Larkham - image credit)
A polar bear broke windows, smashed down doors and scattered clothing before leaving William's Harbour, Labrador, last week. (Submitted by Hayward and Rebecca Larkham - image credit)

People in William's Harbour were recently left cleaning up the destruction caused by a polar bear that broke into almost every home in the Labrador community. Now a non-profit organization from Manitoba hopes to give people like them a heads-up the next time a bear is coming to town.

The bear broke through doors, smashed windows and ate people's food on Friday. It also tore up a couch and scattered clothing around in the small community, about 441 kilometres southeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

"This is pretty rare, this much damage," said Cliff Russell, whose house was damaged. "I think perhaps somewhere along the line, he found some food in a cabin somewhere or something. And now it just seems like he knows how to break in pretty good."

Russell said it seems more bears are passing through the community every year, and he wants to see more bear licences issued to local hunters. But the provincial government says the increases in polar bear sightings this year are the result of sea ice conditions and seal distribution, not a higher number of actual bears, and it's not considering increasing the number of hunting licences.

The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, said the most recent count of of the Davis Strait polar bear population, in 2017-18, recorded 2,015 bears, which are designated "vulnerable," not endangered, by the government.

Submitted by Rebecca Larkham
Submitted by Rebecca Larkham

Russell said if a seal hunt were authorized for the area, it would drive the bears away as there would be fewer seals for them to eat.

"There was a time we would travel along the coast, never having to worry about bears and seems like now you almost have to carry a gun when you're out on Ski-Doo, especially when there's not many people around," Russell said. "You would not want to break down and have to walk home and run into one of those."

Hayward Larkham/Facebook
Hayward Larkham/Facebook

Harm prevention — for people and bears — the goal

When it comes to situations like William's Harbour, a bear climbing onto a roof in St. Anthony, or one trying to break into a home with a mother and daughter inside in Conche, a non-profit is working to create an artificial intelligence radar tower capable of warning people ahead of time.

B.J. Kirschhoffer, the director of field operations for Polar Bear International, says any time polar bears and humans overlap, there a potential for harm — for both humans and bears.

"The more tools that we can provide people as an advance warning, it gives people more time to react to the situation and maybe have a better outcome for both the people and the polar bears."

Submitted by Brendon Clark
Submitted by Brendon Clark

The non-profit is testing three types of radar at its site near Churchill, Man., — nicknamed the "Polar Bear Capital of the World" in hopes of creating one that could be used throughout the Arctic because radar doesn't rely on cameras and can be used in difficult winter conditions.

The non-profit organization began working with a radar company, SpotterRF, and quickly learned that its radar in Manitoba's Wapusk National Park picsks up everything — so there needs to be a way to filter out the unwanted movement alerts.

K.T. Miller/Polar Bears International
K.T. Miller/Polar Bears International

Polar Bear International programmed SpotterRF's AI system with the movements of different animals and are now testing it.

"If we can keep filtering out and keep concentrating on just what we want to see, the 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 safety."

Smarter than your average bears

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

The radar works by "pinging" something moving; after a certain amount of pings, it can confirm something is out there. But a polar bear that's not motivated by food or mating walks slowly to conserve energy and stops often to smell, he said.

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

Polar Bear International
Polar Bear International

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

"This could be a pretty powerful tool moving forward for communities," he said.

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