Monday, February 24, 2014

Are Polar Bears Going Extinct?

looking for the real truth about environmentalists' "poster animal"

Once you get on certain kinds of mailing lists, you never got off, or at least so it seems. After my parents passed away, I had their mail forwarded to my house, thus increasing (in a bad way) the volume and variety of junk mail I get.

One thing I seem to get a lot in the mail are pictures of polar bears. There are a lot of pandas, sea turtles, and white bunnies, but polar bears seem to top the the list.

Inside the envelope or out, polar bears are everywhere. They are hyped as the face of global warming --- large, cute, and very endangered.

They also are part of most zoos. In the San Diego Zoo, for enrichment, they give the bears carrots to play with. (Keeping animals sane and active in zoos is a real challenge. Other kinds of enrichment provided to carnivores are blood Popsicles, chunks of tree trunk, and elk antlers.)

And of course, natural history museums like them too. There are a lot of stuffed polar bears, both in L.A. and across all the cities of the world. This one is in San Diego.

So what's the story? Are they as endangered as the press would have us believe, or is this some kind of liberal, biased, unreasonable, scare tactic? I am sure we have all seen a poster or mailing with one lonely polar bear huddled on the final ice floe.

This question has been asked by others. In my files I have a copy of this magazine which asks the same question.

On one hand, the evidence of decline is hard to deny. There have indeed been cases of polar bears hybridizing with grizzly bears. There are also documented cases recently of bear cannibalism: the hungry dad bear digs out a mama bear from her dean, then kills her and eats her. The babies starve, are eaten, or get crushed in the collapse of the cave. We know that arctic ice is diminishing by overall volume and know too, globally, temperatures are rising.

Since polar bears need sea ice to hunt seals from, bad news from them.

Polar bears have been seen swimming in ice-free sea, 100 miles from land. Apparently, some died of exhaustion swimming this way.

And yet on the other hand, some of the reports are so alarmist that it's hard to take them seriously. If polar bears number in the 10,000 to 20,000 range (and they may well), then the idea that they'll be extinct tomorrow or even the decade after tomorrow, that just does not hold up. But where's the truth?

The decline though seems very real. I have been to look at polar bears first hand, is one reason I know that some of these stories are trustworthy. My wife and I went on board a schooner to sail to the Arctic one summer. It's called the Noorderlicht ("northern light") and oh, this is one beautiful ship.

This part of Norway is called Svalbard. When you land at the final air strip, you have to be careful about the free-roaming wildlife, as this sign indicates.

And sure enough, over the course of several weeks, we did indeed see many living, wild, free, undead polar bears. Here's a frisky cub so cute he could be on the cover of an eco-swag catalogue.

There were other animals new to me too, seals and foxes. Even the famous walrus of song and legend made an appearance.

But I do have to admit, there were times when the bears seemed voracious, as if the general eco-line of "they're all starving to death" were true. But then all bears seem voracious to me all the time. I've seen dozens of bears in the wild, including grizzly bears, black bears, and even one in India called the sloth bear. If it's not hibernating, a bear is probably hungry. I could feed Lucy my mutt dog pork chop cutlets all day and still she would pretend to be hungry for more. It's just the nature of "feast or famine" wildlife: if there's food, gorge yourself. If I had been feeding Lucy all day long, when my wife got home, Lucy would go to the door and give her best "I'm so neglected" look, and try to cadge a few pork chops from my wife, too. 

So even agreeing that polar bears look hungry most of the time no matter that the actual conditions, statistics show that some populations overall are losing weight, producing fewer young, and declining, year to year to year.

One problem is, it's a big place, the high Arctic, and to do census work is nearly impossible. There are not enough helicopters to go around, nor enough funding to send biologists to count in every piece of ice and tundra. Just compare that to something local. Let's say it were important to know how many coyotes were living in the Antelope Valley. First, we would have to decide what we even mean by the "Antelope Valley." Does Gorman count? Cal City? Acton? Second is when to do the survey --- often (though not always) coyotes are nocturnal. If we used some kind of night-vision or infrared goggles, can we be sure we're not counting feral dogs, skunks, bobcats, or even small mountain lions?

Third, even if we do come up with a perfectly reliable number --- we know for sure that 1,483 coyotes are alive and well as of 6 a.m. today in the Antelope Valley --- how can we then know anything stable about their status? We would not know if they were expanding or contracting their population, and even if we knew for sure which of those it was, we would not know why. It could be global warming or it could just be that the landfill fence has a hole in it, so more coyotes are getting more tummy-loads of garbage for more nights in a row, so their pups are doing better this year than they were last. It could be a one-time thing, not an actual trend.

Maybe we should just be happy looking at coyotes in the museum.

Even though it's dead, seeing a polar bear in a museum somehow feels less upsetting than seeing a dead one just out in the wide world. I once stayed with an Inuit family on an island off the coast of Nome, half way to Siberia. (I was on a bird study trip.) They had a dead polar bear frozen in their service porch. Here is a different one --- dead of unknown causes --- I found on a beach in Svalbard.

Global warming may or may not have had the slightest thing to do with this one, but I must say, it was a shock, either way.

After reading all of the comments, pro and con, my thoughts are these. (1) Global warming will reduce ice, and in doing so, speed up further warming. (Black mud warms up faster than white ice, et cetera.) (2) Some polar bear populations may be able to find alternatives, eg, raiding land-based goose colonies, eating berries as grizzly bears do, or getting good at finding fish and seals via ice at times other than high summer. Some won't, though. These are essentially marine mammals --- sort of like four-legged killer whales. They're designed to operate differently than do, say, grizzly bears.

(3) Does that mean polar bears will be extinct by 2050?

No. One sees a lot of numbers but the actual situation (as with the coyotes) is much too complex and consisting of too many unknown variables to pick an exit date, and even if one were to pick a date, that one is too soon. In that sense, there is a degree of alarmist reporting in the popular media.

(4) Can zoos help? No, not really. A zoo polar bear won't be able to hunt in the wild, and there just are not that many, and especially not in prime breeding condition.

(5) Does it matter? After all, a jungle cockroach may go extinct before sunset tonight, and we all will sleep as soundly as ever. Will it matter if the ice thaws and the bears go extinct?

It may, but not for the reason you think. It may not be the bear itself we should worry about, but the causes behind its decline.

Dr. Steven C. Amstrup of Polar Bears International writes "I cannot overemphasize that hybridization provides no solution to the polar bear's dilemma. And to the extent there may be increased hybridization, it probably will be of little consequence to polar bears facing dramatic declines in their habitat base. Polar bears are likely to starve out of their present ranges long before their genes are swamped by those of grizzly bears. If some polar bear genes persist in grizzly bears, after polar bears have disappeared from their current sea ice home, that fact will be irrelevant with regard to efforts to retain the magnificent and highly specialized life form we now know as the polar bear."

He concludes, "Discussions of hybridization aside, it is important to remember that by the time we allow the world to warm enough that the polar bears' sea ice habitat disappears, challenges to humans will be so great that no one will be thinking about polar bear conservation."


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments internally.

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