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​The polar bear capital of the world

Lee Cowan visits Churchill, Manitoba, the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," where the world's largest land predator arrives waiting for the sea ice to freeze - and tourists arrive to gaze at these majestic animals
A walk among polar bears 09:44

Appreciating one of our continent's most remarkable creatures requires a little North exposure. Our Cover Story is reported by Lee Cowan:

On the edge of Canada's Arctic, along the western shore of Hudson Bay, it's easy to think you've reached the ends of the Earth. It can feel like you're utterly alone up here ... but then, out in all that white, a pair of sleepy, dark eyes slowly open -- revealing what we came all this way to see.

And apparently, the world's largest land predator came to see us, too.

"How rare is this to see here?" asked Cowan.

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"Well, it's pretty common to see polar bears out here this time of year," said scientist Steve Amstrup. "But it's not as common to see a big 'ol male like that just come and lay down right next to the buggy."

The buggy is a Tundra Buggy, sort of a cross between a tour bus and a monster truck. And it's where Amstrup does much of his work, as chief scientist for Polar Bears International, a private group campaigning for the bear's conservation.

"I've been working with polar bears for 35 years now, and I still, every time I see them, it's like, 'Holy cow, there's a real wild polar bear!' They're just incredible creatures."

We're near Churchill, Manitoba, a remote frontier town that proudly calls itself the "Polar Bear Capital of the World."

It is isolated, to be sure -- you can't even get to this town by road. But every Fall, these giants of the North come here in droves to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze back over so they can start eating again.

The polar bear's main source of food is seal meat, and the easiest way for the bears to hunt them is from the ice above.

As the chow line grows on land, another migration rolls up to watch ... a quiet stampede of eco-tourists anxious to catch a glimpse of an animal whose future is as hotly debated as climate change itself.

"In the United States, we have listed polar bears as a threatened species, under the U.S. Endangered Species Act," said Amstrup, "and they were listed as threatened not necessarily because of their current status, but because of what we anticipate their future status to be."

And what he anticipates their future status might be has Amstrup worried. But he knows not everyone is wringing their hands.

Currently, it's estimated there are between 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the wild.

To many, that's a pretty sizable number. And some of the bears -- especially in the upper reaches of the Arctic -- seem to be doing quite well.

But what concerns Amstrup the most are the bears here who, he says, are experiencing the effects of climate change right now.

"They lose about a kilogram of body weight -- about two pounds -- for every day they're on land," he said. "These guys are on land now a whole month longer than they were just 30 years ago.

"We could say, 'Well, yeah, one population might be doing well now,' but we know that soon, all of the populations will have less sea ice than they do now. Some of them will have NO sea ice."

Those who track sea ice levels, like the National Snow & Ice Data Center, say the seasonal ice here in the southernmost region of the polar bear's habitat is already melting earlier and freezing later. That means bears are marooned on land longer -- and getting hungrier.

"They came ashore this year, I think, around the middle of July. So he really hasn't had much to eat since then," Amstrup said.

In November, when we were there, the bears were spending their time lounging about, trying to conserve energy (which makes them pretty easy to find and photograph). Nothing makes for a better photo-op than a scratching, relaxing polar bear.

While they look as friendly as they are fuzzy, truth is they are one of nature's perfect killing machines. Their enormous size and strength are part of the allure.

Kevin Burke is one of Churchill's few locals, and he takes great joy in showing tourists his frozen backyard. "So many people have told me now, this IS their bucket list," Burke said.

He drives one of those tundra buggies for Frontiers North, an adventure tourism company providing bundled up enthusiasts the chance of a lifetime.

The bears don't seem to mind the intrusion; in fact, many are downright curious of the buggies themselves -- on occasion a little TOO curious.

"I don't think we smell all that appealing to them," Amstrup said.

We might not smell too appealing, but the food in town does. There are warning signs posted everywhere reminding the town's residents to be "Bear Aware," as they call it, and we quickly found out why.

One mother bear and her two cubs wandered up right behind us on a busy road just outside of town. She came within a few feet of our camera ... only to be chased by another car of Lookie-Lews back into the trees.

Coean asked, "Is it safe to walk around Churchill?"

"I'd say it's safe to walk around Churchill in the day; I wouldn't say so at night," said Brett Wlock, a Manitoba conservation officer. His job? To keep polar bears away from people.

If they can't scare the nuisance bears away, they capture them.

The wayward bears are brought to what the locals call Polar Bear Jail. To make sure they're not tempted to come back to town again, the bears are given no food, just water.

"We don't want them to associate food to humans, or to that building" Wlock said. "We're going to hold them in there for 30 days. That's 30 days closer to the time the ice is going to form on the bay, which is when they are going to go out and hunt seals, and it's also 30 days away from the problem behavior that caused them to go there in the first place."

When their "sentence" is up, they're tranquilized and then airlifted back out into the tundra.

Not lost on anyone here is the carbon footprint left behind by those who travel all this way to witness all things polar bear.

Cowan asked, "All the tourists that show up here -- does that help, or hurt?"

"I think that for many people seeing something in person, seeing how things are now and hearing how they used to be, and seeing a magnificent species of the polar bear right in front of them, suddenly they can become inspired in a way they might have never become inspired before," replied Amstrup.

"I studied polar bears in Alaska for most of my adult life, and one of the last things that I did was predict that they were going to disappear," he said. "So it's a little hard for me to talk about, but to think that they might be gone, I don't want to think about that. So I want to do what I can to stop it. And I think we are; I think we are making progress."

Most agree progress was made at the global climate change conference in Paris last year, when representatives of 195 nations agreed, for the very first time, to lower planet-warming greenhouse gases.

In the meantime, the polar bears here -- and all around the vast reaches of the Arctic -- will continue to do what they've always done: survive the best they can in whatever conditions are thrown their way.

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