HELENA, Mont. - In the harsh, remote wilds of the Canadian tundra, a wolverine scampers up to a polar bear snoozing near the shore of the Hudson Bay. The bear rises and makes a half-hearted charge, driving away the fierce, badger-like animal.
The brief encounter Thursday was streamed live to computers around the world through a new program that aims to document in real time the annual migration of hundreds of polar bears outside Churchill, Manitoba.
The bears travel through the small town each October and November and then wait for the Hudson Bay freeze-up, when they can get out on the ice and hunt for seals. In the past, their trek was witnessed mainly by scientists and intrepid tourists.
Now, thanks to an initial $50,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation to set up four cameras on a makeshift lodge and a roaming Tundra Buggy, plus ongoing payments for bandwidth and technical infrastructure, the bears' antics and actions at this way station can be viewed from anybody's living room through the foundation's website, www.explore.org.
"It brings the Arctic to the people," said Krista Wright, executive vice-president of Polar Bears International, an advocacy group based in Bozeman, Mont. "The polar bear is the North's iconic species. This is that exotic animal that people travel from all over the world to see."
There are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide. The Western Hudson Bay polar bears, one of 19 subpopulations, are estimated to number between 600 and 800. Their gathering point near the former military town of Churchill makes them among the most accessible and studied group of bears in existence.
Their numbers are expected to grow over the next few weeks as the weather turns colder, culminating with the bay expected to freeze around the third week of November.
It's unseasonably warm in Manitoba, as evidenced on the webcam by the tundra bare of snow. That raises concerns that ice will be late in forming again this year — last year, freeze-up didn't happen until mid-December, nearly a month later than usual. That's a problem for the bears, Wright said.
"It's breaking up earlier and freezing later, so the time they're spending on land is longer. The time they're on land, they're basically fasting," she said.
Charles Annenberg Weingarten, the foundation's vice-president and a trustee, said the polar bear webcam is an experiment he hopes to expand into a program called Pearls of the Planet that would place streaming cameras in various wild places.
Weingarten said a new feature will be added to the polar bear webcam soon that will allow viewers to document their observations of the polar bears on the website. The idea, he said is to encourage scientific learning, something like a Sesame Street for adults.