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This article was published 17/2/2009 (3413 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The number of polar bear encounters in the Churchill area plummeted last year but don’t expect that to comfort Rene Preteau, who survived a rare attack by an irate mother bear with two cubs in tow.
Data from Manitoba Conservation shows the number of bear reports in the Churchill region dropped to 170 in 2008, from close to 250 the year before and even more than in 2006.
Most of those reports were simply bears that got too close for comfort, said Manitoba Conservation’s regional supervisor Shaun Bobier.
He said polar bear reports don’t necessarily mean the animal in question posed a threat.
But of three more serious "bear-human interactions" reported to Manitoba Conservation in 2008, one left Preteau, a maintenance worker, with a torn leg muscle and lasting fear of a second attack.
Preteau was repairing windows early last fall at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, 23 kilometres east of town, when a mother polar bear and two cubs rounded the corner unexpectedly.
"She started doing hissing sounds and hitting her paw on the ground, and I knew she was going to attack," he said.
Preteau was so close to the research centre he didn’t think to have a weapon on hand for protection, he said. Besides, it was early September and polar bear season was still two months away.
Backed up against the building, Preteau wedged himself against the protruding bars he was mending on the windows, a security feature designed to keep bears out.
The hissing bear smacked him in the face, said Preteau, and his hat went flying. He started to yell and tried to hit the massive animal on the nose with a ratchet he’d been using on the windows, remembering that a polar bear’s snout is one of its vulnerable areas.
"I had heard the best thing is you do lots of yelling, and try to scare it off," he said.
Preteau ran to the next window and the bear lunged for a second time, ripping his jacket. On the third attack she grabbed Preteau by the leg, dragging him to the ground.
"When she got my knee and she got me down, I figured that was the end," he said.
But that’s when one of the cubs began to whine, distracting the mother bear, who backed up and turned to her agitated offspring. Preteau made a mad dash for the fire exit door he’d left unlocked when he came outside just a short time earlier.
"I made a run for the door, and I just made it," said Preteau, who was back at work a few months later but still suffers numbness in his leg where the bear tore a muscle.
Polar bear attacks are rare in Churchill.
The last reported incident happened in 2004 in Wapusk National Park, when a student was pushed to the ground by a juvenile bear while walking from a helicopter to a waiting tundra buggy. The driver of the buggy managed to scare off the animal, and the student was back at work the same day.
The two other run-ins with bears in 2008 included a bear that broke a window at an area home, and another report of a bear that reportedly pushed against a cottage door.
All in all, Manitoba Conservation officials say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the overall number of bear reports goes up or down.
Bobier said the number depends in part on where along the coast the bears first set foot on dry land, after a winter of seal hunting on the ice.
He said because of where the ice broke up last year, fewer bears came ashore close to Churchill.