Saving the Polar Bears

Whitefish massage therapist to support Polar Bears International research and education team in Canada

By Clare Menzel
Jessica Cooney in Churchill, Manitoba, while volunteering with Polar Bears International. Courtesy Photo

Every October, hundreds of polar bears begin to gather along the shore of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba, on the 58th parallel. Forced onto the tundra for months by warm summer weather, they’re hungry and anxious for ice to refreeze across the bay so they can lumber back to their seal hunting grounds.

Tourists hoping to spot a bear and scientists contributing to long-term research monitoring projects and education efforts also migrate to the polar bear capital of the world every fall. This October, for the second year in a row, Jessica Cooney, owner of Whitefish Lake Massage, will join scientists and support staff with Polar Bears International (PBI), a polar bear conservation nonprofit, in Churchill, as a cook for three weeks.

A rented house in Churchill serves as home base, and Cooney typically works in a tiny kitchen without amenities like a dishwasher to prepare large, hot meals for anywhere between eight to 20 diners.  She cooks with local moose, caribou, and goose, but for the most part, she says, visitors try to leave provisions sold in the remote grocery stores available for Inuit residents, instead shipping in huge boxes of food staples from Costco every few weeks.

“It’s my job to use up and cook with what I have,” said Cooney, who has previously worked as a volunteer in soup kitchens and as a manager of the Snow Ghost Ranch in Whitefish. “When you think about people who are out in the cold all day, they tend to want warm foods, so I do a lot of soups and stews.”

The researchers, who visit Churchill primarily on a volunteer basis, come from across the world to take part in research surveys that track population trends, body conditions, survival rates, movement patterns, and maternal den behaviors. They also serve as educational guides on tundra buggies serviced by private tour companies catering to visitors.

“It’s really a volunteer network that makes all of this happen — and everybody plays a role. The cook is just as important as the scientists,” said Krista Wright, PBI’s Bozeman-based executive director. “We rely on professional volunteers to donate their time to bring awareness to polar bear conservation, climate change, and sea ice.”

Scientists estimate that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears live in the Arctic, though threats including harvest management, increased industrial activity, pollution, and human-bear conflict threaten their future. PBI aims to be a global resource for scientific polar bear information and a leading voice on the impacts of climate warming.

“Climate change is affecting animals around the world,” Cooney said. “The melting of the Arctic sea ice drives a big threat to the polar bear population. Polar bears rely on the sea ice to hunt seal. Flathead Valley residents should be watching closely to what is happening in the Arctic. The melting of the sea ice will make the oceans rise and affect coastal towns around the world. Polar Bears International is teaching us how we can take part in helping save the sea ice not only to help save the polar bears but help the survival of our own species.”

From Oct. 2–8, Whitefish Lake Massage will donate 10 percent of profits to PBI and The Chiropractor will donate $5 from every cryotherapy session.

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