The Disappearing Polar Bear?
March 2, 2013

The Disappearing Polar Bear?

February 27 was International Polar Bear Day, which was supposed to raise our awareness of the plight of this majestic creature.

My question is, is there really a plight? Yes, this year has seen record lows in snowpack and sea ice extents. Yes, there have been declines observed in eight out of the 19 polar bear populations. And yes, global warming is a fact that is affecting all life on our planet.

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada is “ground zero” for polar bears. The Wall Street Journal reports that,” Every fall the town is overrun with bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. The bears, in turn, are trailed by herds of tourists, tour guides, scientists, green-leaning types and B-list celebrities—all looking for communion with “The Most Important Animal of Our Time.”

Let me tell you a little about Churchill. It is a little town on the shore of the Hudson Bay. The town covers about 21 square miles with a population of just under 1,000 residents – human residents, that is. The town is only approachable by train or plane. You can’t drive to Churchill, it’s that remote. And yet, every year Churchill is overrun with tourists wanting to see polar bears, or beluga whales, or birding migrations, or even just the Northern Lights.

If you want to take a polar bear tour in one of those iconic white tundra buggies, Churchill is the place to go. It is also the place to go for researchers looking to understand the polar bear.

Zac Unger is a firefighter and paramedic in Oakland, California. Unger moved his family to Churchill to write a book about the plight of the poor, misunderstood polar bear. In his own words, Unger explains, “I didn’t end up in polar-bear country by accident. I went because I wanted to become a hero of the environmental movement…. I took a leave of absence from my job, pulled my kids out of school, and moved the entire family to the edge of the Canadian Arctic. My plan was to bring the apocalypse home by writing a mournful elegy for the polar bears, which would quickly establish me as the heir to Rachel Carson/John Muir/Edward Abbey. Easy.”

He wrote the book, just not the one he was expecting to write. “Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows” is more about how the polar bear isn’t dying off as expected, how the town of Churchill deals with them, and how this aggressive, mean animal became the marketing gimmick face of climate change debate.

Unger spoke to the Wall Street Journal, explaining the numbers game. “Let’s start with what we know. Almost everybody agrees that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears alive today. Here’s another thing almost everyone agrees on: That number is a whole lot bigger than it was 40 years ago.”

Some scientists place that earlier population number at 5,000, making today’s estimates of 20-25,000 an astronomical jump in population.

“Polar bears are one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world,” says Drikus Gissing, wildlife director for the Canadian territory of Nunavut. “There are more bears here now than there were in the recent past.” With as many as half of the world’s polar bears living in Nunavut, so that’s not an insignificant statement.

Unger calls this an “inconvenient truth” because much of the conservation rhetoric is centered around the polar bear being in decline. Much of the conservation groups funding is also based on the polar bear being in decline.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are problems with the polar bears. Lower body weights, more single births instead of twins and triplets, and at least one-third of the 19 populations are decreasing. But at least another third of the populations are increasing and stable. That last third live in such remote areas that they can’t even be reliably counted, much less really studied.

My question is this, are the polar bears really dying? Are they in deep trouble, as the media and some scientists and conservationists would have us believe? Or do we believe what the man-on-the-ground and the rest of the scientists are telling us?

Unger spoke with Kevin Burke, a Churchill native and a ranger in the deep bush country. Burke spends countless hours assisting scientists who study the bears and predict their imminent demise. “I’m just starting to resent being told that I’m not seeing what I know abso-flipping-lutely damn well that I’m seeing with my own eyes,” he said (using considerably more colorful language).

Image Credit: Andrey Yurlov / Shutterstock

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