Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan are marveling at the photos taken from their wildlife cameras set up in Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park, showing grizzly bears outside of their typical habitat.

Photos that researcher Doug Clark tweeted out Thursday show grizzlies, polar bears and black bears in the vicinity of one camera mounted on a fence post in the park, roughly 100 kilometres southeast of Churchill, Man., within seven months of each other.

“Seeing all three species of bear in Canada and in North America, at one spot, ‘unique’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. There are only a couple of places where you’d even have the potential for that in North America and Wapusk National Park is the only place where that amount of overlap has been documented,” Clark said.

Clark, an assistant professor from the University of Saskatchewan, said that his research in conjunction with Parks Canada, began in 2011 as a fact-finding mission to determine how bears, polar bears specifically, operated around the national park’s fenced-in research camps.

The park has a mandate to protect its bears, staff and visitors, Clark said, and the information the cameras provide will help to ensure that.

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The cameras, triggered by motion and heat, have also captured the park’s other visitors, including wolves, caribou, moose, wolverines and geese.

The ‘early winners in the climate change lottery’

For decades, the story of grizzlies in North America has been one of decline but this might be a turn around for the species, Clark said, calling them the possible “early winners in the climate change lottery.”

When Doug Clark was a park warden in Wapusk National Park in the 1990s, he was the second person to report seeing a grizzly bear in Manitoba. (Doug Clark/University of Saskatchewan)

Working as a park warden in Wapusk in 1998, he filed the second observation of a living grizzly in northern Manitoba.

“They simply had never scientifically been documented [southeast of Churchill] at all,” Clark said, anecdotally, the numbers are growing but little is known for sure.

It is difficult to differentiate between grizzlies but exactly one year apart in exactly the same place, a grizzly showed up in Clark’s photos and he is making the assumption that it is the same bear.

“That really makes me think that it might be denning nearby. That’s pure speculation but it’s speculation informed by knowing that grizzly bears are able to move enormous distances and a mature bear like that doesn’t do a whole lot by chance,” he said.

“These two photos with that synchrony between them certainly gives us some really interesting things to chew on and think about… It’s well past the point where it can be dismissed as just one bear wandering through.”

Climate change and bear habitat

These cameras also allow Clark to analyze the original subjects of the research, polar bears. The pictures allow him to look at the mammals’ body condition, their numbers and when they are appearing compared with the years prior.

Doug Clark said he can’t believe the cameras have lasted as long as they have with the number of curious bears that decide to chew on them. (Doug Clark/University of Saskatchewan)

“[Body condition is] a very important measure because with concern about polar bears losing access to seal hunting habitat due to climate warming and loss of sea ice, being able to monitor body condition is increasingly important,” he told CBC.

The data from this spring is of the most interest to Clark because from 2011-14 Hudson Bay’s ice broke up in relatively consistent time periods. This spring, there was a significantly earlier ice melt which will change the bears’ behaviours. Clark is interested to see how.

Wapusk National Park

Doug Clark secures one of their wildlife cameras to a fence post at a research base in Wapusk National Park. (Doug Clark/University of Saskatchewan)

Wapusk National Park is the only place where you can study human-bear interactions safely, thanks to the fenced research camps set up in the park, Clark said.

The location of the park is also key, Clark said, because it is nestled at the edge of the forest and tundra ecosystems, on the coast of Hudson Bay.

Wapusk National Park is located in northeastern Manitoba. (Google Maps)

“Ecologically things are changing very, very rapidly and grizzlies moving in are just one of the more visible signs of it,” Clark said.

The data collected this spring also showed robins in the area for the first time since they began their research.

“Being able to observe changes right at the edges of two habitats, where things are going to start to move, they’re going to be the most apparent and the most visible and probably the most dramatic. So it’s a wonderful place to ask questions about change too.”