The truth about polar bears (Page 1 of 3)
Depending on whom you ask, the North’s sentinel species is either on the edge of extinction or an environmental success story. An in-depth look at the complicated, contradictory and controversial science behind the sound bites.
By Zac Unger
On the western shore of Hudson Bay, it’s
sometimes hard to remember that polar bears
are supposed to be going extinct. Every fall,
hundreds of bears gather near Churchill,
Man., waiting for the bay to freeze so that they can head
out onto the ice to hunt for seals. During this period, people
in town treat polar bears more like nuisances than a sentinel
species whose condition is regarded as the clearest evidence
of the coming global climate apocalypse.
If a friend has ever shown you a snapshot of a polar bear,
the odds are good that the photo was taken in Churchill.
While Churchill is legendarily the Polar Bear Capital of
the World, it is also the Polar Bear Tourism Capital of the
World. There are 19 polar bear populations on the planet
— 13 of them in Canada — and none is as accessible as in
Churchill, which draws an estimated 10,000 visitors every
year. If you’d like to scratch your itch for bear sighting in
Baffin Bay or Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., you’ll probably need
float planes, ski-touring gear and a solid knowledge of igloo
architecture. But in Churchill, all it takes is a whole lot of
disposable income. With hotels, ranger stations and perky
multilingual guides, the town is entirely geared toward the
modern ecotourist. For the modest sum of $11,349 (per
person), you can have the “Ultimate Polar Bear Experience”:
10 days in the Tundra Buggy Lodge, essentially an oversized
RV parked at the water’s edge.
By mid-November, the Churchill polar bears have not
eaten a full meal in four months, and they spend their days
conserving energy. They laze about in front of the assembled
crowds, walking in circles, licking at the ground and just
generally killing time. Tourists jostle one another, hoping
for killer photo ops: the cutest cub, the biggest battlescarred
male, the particularly curious subadult that rears up
on its hind legs and slaps its paws against the windows of
the tour bus. Occasionally, a bear wanders right into town
to take a swipe at a garbage can or sniff longingly at the
odours wafting out of Gypsy’s Bakery.
The tourists come, of course, because polar bears are
a dying breed, and they want to check that furry face off
their life lists before it’s too late. The environmental movement
has never had a higher-profile spokesmodel than Ursus
. Every discussion about global warming has to
include a mention of polar bears; every article about the
human disregard for nature has to feature a photograph of
a sad-looking bear on a tiny speck of ice.
Granted, the population numbers have been startling.
Research from 1984 to 2004 showed that the western
Hudson Bay population, which includes the Churchill
bears, had declined from 1,194 to 935. The trendlines from that study suggested that by 2011, the population would
fall to as low as 676.
Fast-forward to today and a new study, which reveals that
the current polar bear population of western Hudson Bay
is 1,013 animals.
Wait … what? More bears than there were 10 years ago?
Nearly double the prediction? “Polar bears are one of the
biggest conservation success stories in the world,” says
Drikus Gissing, wildlife director for the Government of
Nunavut. “There are more bears here now than there were
in the recent past.”
“That’s false,” says Kassie Siegel of the Center for
Biological Diversity, the international advocacy organization
that, in 2008, successfully pushed to have polar bears
listed as “threatened” in the United States. “Polar bear
populations are in decline. That means individual bears are
starving and drowning.”
Polar bears can weigh more than 500 kilograms, they
drag seals out of the ocean with their claws, and on occasion
they will attack human beings. In short, these animals are
not known for their subtlety. And yet a deep dive into the
current science behind polar bear population dynamics
produces results that are complicated, contradictory and
often quite controversial. For the segment of the media that
traffics in sound bites, it’s easy to declare that polar bears are
on the verge of extinction … or that this is just another
example of the climate-change myth. The truth, as usual,
lies somewhere in between.
Underlying any story about polar bear populations
is the reality that it can be extremely difficult working with
polar bears. They can range across international boundaries,
over hundreds of kilometres of forbidding ice and frigid
open water. They can dig into dens or camouflage
on snowfields. And mark-recapture studies, in
which bears are tranquilized, are problematic. Drugging
bears is dangerous for both the animals and the scientists,
and Inuit often object to such invasive interactions, since
drugging and physically handling bears stresses the animals
and is an affront to traditional ecological practices.
So scientists end up counting bears in many different
ways, including incorporating observations by knowledgeable local residents. But population estimates are just that: estimates.
Some subpopulations of bears haven’t been counted
in decades, if ever. And some are counted more frequently
but with slightly different survey areas or methodologies
from year to year. The Polar Bear Specialist Group, an
international consortium of experts, classifies 10 of the 19
subpopulations as being “data-deficient,” which isn’t exactly
conducive to a coherent discussion about how polar bears
are faring worldwide.
Despite all this hedging, the numbers
still tell a powerful
story. It’s just not always clear what that story is. In Davis
Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island, the polar bear
population has grown from 900 animals in the late 1970s
to around 2,100 today. In Foxe Basin — a portion of northern
Hudson Bay — a population that was estimated to be
2,300 in the early 2000s now stands at 2,570. And in
specific areas of western Hudson Bay, the most-studied,
most-photographed group of bears on Earth seems to have
been on a slow but steady increase since in the 1970s.
News like this leaves climate-change deniers crowing
from the rooftops. But a closer look reveals that everything
may not be quite so sunny. “Some populations appear to be doing OK now, but what’s frightening
is what might happen in the
very near future,” says wildlife biologist
Lily Peacock, who has worked
with polar bears for the Government
of Nunavut and the U.S. Geological
Survey. “All indications are that the
future does not look bright.” While
population trends might appear
stable, she says, “we’re picking up
declines in body condition that are
really frightening.” Scientists have
shown a direct correlation between
warm years and skinny bears. Even
more distressing, one study predicted
that 40 to 73 percent of pregnant
females could fail to deliver healthy
cubs if ice breakup happens one
month earlier than in the 1990s.
Polar bears are long-lived animals that
reproduce slowly; counting the
of animals that are alive today
might not paint an accurate picture.