Safety in polar bear country

York Factory National Historic Site

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Polar bear behaviour is very different from that of grizzly and black bears.

Polar bears are predators, primarily hunting seals, while grizzlies and black bears mostly eat plants. As predators, polar bears will investigate humans, their camps and may even consider humans as a food source.

Nanuq, the great white bear, is found in many of Canada’s northern national parks and in some national historic sites. Whenever bears and people occupy the same area, conflict can arise. Polar bears and people have coexisted for thousands of years but contact between the two must be minimised to continue this legacy. Successful polar bear conservation requires your co-operation.

For your safety, and the safety of the bears, learn about safe travel in polar bear country and take precautions. By choosing to travel in polar bear country you not only accept the associated risks, but also the responsibility to alter your plans, actions and attitudes to accommodate these magnificent animals.

Each encounter with a polar bear is unique. Good judgement, common sense and familiarity with polar bear behaviour are required in all situations. This pamphlet provides guidelines for avoiding and dealing with polar bear encounters. For your safety and the safety of the bears, please read this pamphlet carefully and seriously consider the risks involved with travel in polar bear country. Further information is available in the DVD “Polar Bears: A Guide to Safety” developed by Parks Canada and the Safety in Bear Country Society.

After a polar bear attack or encounter follow this emergency check list:

  1. STAY CALM and ensure you are safe.
  2. Check that all people in your group are accounted for.
  3. Call for help by radio or satellite phone. (Get contact numbers at your orientation to the park.)
  4. Report location and time of incident.
  5. Report number of people involved.
  6. Report extent of injuries and property damage.
  7. Report numbers and last locations of all polar bears involved in the incident.
  8. Report reason for the attack if known (female protecting cubs, surprise, defending food source, etc.)
  9. Report description of bears (male or female, size, markings, etc.)
  10. Stand by to provide additional information to rescuers.
In Canada’s national parks it is unlawful to possess a firearm unless you are a licensed guide or bear monitor with a permit. Consider hiring a guide or a bear monitor for increased safety. If you operate a guiding or outfitting business and wish your guides to be considered for a firearms permit, please contact the National Park or Site or Field Unit Office.

The exception to this regulation is for beneficiaries of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement, the Nunavik Inuit Land Claim Agreement and any future land claim agreements, who can carry firearms when engaged in traditional activities within national parks within their land claim area.

More about polar bears

Polar bears are the largest land carnivore in North America. An adult male typically weighs 300-450 kg, stretching 3 metres from nose to tail. They are strong, fast, agile on land or ice, and are expert swimmers and divers. Their sense of smell is exceptional, their eyesight comparable to a human’s. Polar bears are naturally curious, not fearless as they have been labelled. They are shy and prefer to avoid confrontations with humans and other polar bears. Their primary prey is the ringed seal but they will also prey on birds, eggs, small mammals, and even humans. They also scavenge anything from beached whales to human garbage. In the heat of summer, polar bears may appear slow and docile, but they are capable of moving swiftly and with purpose.

This pamphlet was developed for national parks in the Arctic. Polar bears and bear encounters are more numerous in Ukkusiksalik and Wapusk National Parks than other Arctic national parks. Independent travelling in these parks is not recommended, but guided trips are available. Contact Ukkusiksalik or Wapusk National Parks for further information.

Credit: Bromley, Marianne. 1996. Safety in Polar Bear Country. Northwest Territories Renewable Resources, Yellowknife, NWT. 24 pp.

Suggested readings:

For more information:

Location:Auyuittuq National Park and
Quttinirpaaq National Park

Box 353
Pangnirtung, NU X0A 0R0
Phone number: 867-473-2500
Email address:

Location:Sirmilik National Park
Box 300
Pond Inlet, NU X0A 0S0
Phone number: 867-899-8092
Email address:

Location:Ukkusiksalik National Park
Box 220
Repulse Bay, NU X0C 0H0
Phone number: 867-462-4500
Email address:

Location:Torngat Mountains National Park
Box 471
Nain, NL A0P 1L0
Phone number: 1-800-922-1290 or 709-458-2417

Location:Wapusk National Park
Box 127 Churchill, MB R0B 0E0
Phone number: 204-675-8863
Email address:

Location:Western Arctic
Ivvavik National Park
Aulavik National Park
Tuktut Nogait National Park
Pingo Canadian Landmark

Box 1840, Inuvik, NT X0E 0T0
Phone number: 867-777-8800
Email address:

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