With sea ice in retreat at northern latitudes, some scientists are warning that bold human intervention may be required to help polar bear populations survive the loss of habitat.
In 1966, prospects for Churchill, Manitoba, did not look good. The backwater port town on the west coast of Hudson Bay had been in steady decline since the military began pulling out of the area two years earlier. The walk from one end of the town to the other took 10 or 15 minutes, past the Eskimo Museum, the Churchill Hotel, the Hudson Hotel, Chez Gizelle, Bay Motors Garage, the Masonic Hall, the Hudson’s Bay store, the RCMP office and Sigurdson and Martin’s Supermarket, whose owners kindly carried customer debts until they had the money to pay. That was about it for commercial enterprises. The Igloo Theatre had closed its doors for the last time that summer. So had the Steak House, the town’s only restaurant.
Consultant Murray V. Jones, who was sent by the province to evaluate Churchill’s living conditions in the late 1960s, blamed the federal government for not preventing the community’s “unparalleled squalor.” Many of the homes were tarpaper, bare-framed shacks. Water was trucked in and stored in fuel drums. Conditions in Churchill, Jones reported, were “among the most wretched in Canada.” Gordon Beard, the Independent MLA for the riding, was so distraught that he suggested the government “lock the whole show up and leave Churchill to the polar bears.”
The 1,200 or so polar bears that inhabited the region were also a problem. With the withdrawal of the Canadian military, some of whose soldiers occasionally shot bears for trophies or in self-defence, more and more of the animals began venturing into town looking for food in one of the dumps or, in some cases, at people’s homes. In an effort to protect people and property, as many as 29 bears were being killed each year.
By the early 1970s, it was apparent to all that something had to be done to manage the polar bear problem differently. When the Manitoba government decided to ask every adult in Churchill for their recommendations, there were those who predictably suggested that every bear should be killed. But to the surprise of the wildlife specialist who put a copy of the survey in every mailbox, a significant number of people desperately wanted to find a way to live with the animals.
Many of the letters weren’t simple responses from ordinary people who, for the most part, led unextraordinary lives, but long thoughtful reflections on what had happened in the past and what needed to be done in the future. One elderly lady who had experienced more than her share of troubles with polar bears sent in a handwritten note that was four pages long. She apologized for being so verbose. The wildlife specialist was so impressed with the quality of her insights that he asked her to be a member of the committee set up to devise a plan to solve the polar bear problem.
The plan that the Churchill Polar Bear Committee penned in 1977 was a remarkable result of science and sane public opinion. It led to the creation of a polar bear jail for so-called “problem bears” that would otherwise be shot. A more humane protocol for deterring bears was also recommended, and opportunities for wildlife viewing were envisioned. The committee insisted that scientific research and public education needed to guide future management decisions. In short, the committee wanted people to regard the polar bear not as a great white rat that ate garbage at the dump, but as a majestic animal that deserved respect.
Since then, most people in Churchill have learned to love bears, because in a way they saved their town. The polar bears of Churchill have become a hot tourist attraction and a cash cow for the town’s businesses, spawned by media coverage from National Geographic to the New York Times and Le Figaro.
It is also an example of human intervention in nature’s processes, where conditions were managed for the benefit of a local economy. Many would argue it has also worked for the polar bears, which are not being shot at with anywhere near the same frequency. But where the killing of polar bears was once the main concern, the threat today is more insidious. Sea ice is melting at a rapid rate at northern latitudes, shrinking the polar bears’ habitat and putting them under stress. If an expert panel appointed by the US Geological Survey is correct, there will not be enough sea ice left in western Hudson Bay by mid-century to sustain this population.
It is time, say a small group of scientists who monitor the fate of the polar bear populations in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Russia, to consider drastic steps to ensure that climate change doesn’t do to the bears what hunters, miners and oil developers did not: wipe them out.
Two key ideas are supplemental feeding and diversionary feeding to draw hungry polar bears away from human settlements.
In February, these 12 polar bear scientists declared that before conditions become extreme, it is time to weigh detailed plans for how to save an animal population estimated to number between 20,000 and 25,000. In an article called “Rapid Ecosystem Change and Polar Bear Conservation,” published in the Conservation Letters journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, they suggest a series of policy options that should be considered for ensuring the bears’ survival.
Some bears, they say, may have to be placed in temporary holding compounds until it is cold enough for them to go back onto the sea ice. In worst-case scenarios, polar bears from southern regions may have to be relocated to more northerly climes that have sufficient sea ice cover. Failing that, those animals that have little chance of being rehabilitated or relocated may have to be euthanized. One way or another, zoos, which are currently having a tough time getting polar bears because of stiff regulations that prevent them from doing so, are likely going to be offered as many animals as they can handle.
Far-fetched, draconian and unlikely as some of these scenarios seem to be, the crisis management plan harks back to the signing of the first International Polar Bear Agreement 40 years ago, when the world’s polar bear population was in serious peril. The need to do something is as critical now as it was back then.
“We really never have been here before,” says Steve Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International and lead author of a landmark US-government–appointed scientific panel that predicted in 2008 that two-thirds of the polar bears in the world could disappear by mid-century. Yes, before the International Polar Bear Agreement that was signed 40 years ago, many scientists were concerned about polar bears’ future. But the identified threats back then were mainly hunting and perhaps industrial development and other “on the ground” activities occurring in polar bear habitat.
University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher, the lead author of the recent paper, has been thinking about the need for dramatic rescue plans for polar bears for at least five years. The record disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice in 2007 increased the urgency for emergency planning, as did research by Peter Molnar — Derocher’s one-time graduate student and now a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University — suggesting that the collapse of some polar bear populations may occur sooner than climate models predict.
But it was only in the past two years that Derocher and his colleagues began considering a specific list of actions to save polar bear populations. “If you talk to any of the polar bear biologists, you’ll find that the public is already asking us about the issues we cover in the paper,” Derocher said in an interview. “I’ve had well-positioned conservationists waiting to start the fundraising to feed polar bears.”
Two key ideas in the current paper are supplemental feeding, to make up for the loss of ringed seals that polar bears can kill on ice, and diversionary feeding to draw hungry polar bears on shore away from human settlements. Supplemental feeding is nothing new; it is done for numerous species, from elk in the United States to brown bears in eastern Europe. And it was offered up as a solution to the polar bear problem in Churchill in the 1970s.
Derocher says that the goal would be to distribute food, such as seals, in sufficient quantities over large distances so that hungry bears, forced ashore by lack of ice, would not come into conflict with each other by vying for the same food. Ideally, this would keep bear populations widely scattered; attracting too many bears to central locations could increase the risk of disease transmission. Helicopters could be used to deliver the seals, but the logistics and expense of such a plan would be daunting. Thousands of seals would have to be killed by wildlife officials every summer to meet the needs of hungry bears, which each consume five seals a week on average.
“There is not a lot of experience with any of these issues, so it would take coordination and learning from the east Europeans, who already feed brown bears,” said Derocher. Still, he is convinced that we will someday be feeding polar bears in the wild. “The public pressure will be intense to do so,” he says, “and the public influences policy.”
Another possible measure would be to relocate bears from southerly regions, such as Hudson Bay, to more northerly regions, such as M’Clintock Channel in Nunavut in the high Canadian Arctic. The number of bears in the icier M’Clintock Channel area has been significantly reduced by overhunting, so there is room to relocate bears from Hudson Bay and James Bay without creating territorial conflicts, scientists say. Cubs from one population could also be flown to more northerly regions and placed with females that would rear them as “foster” cubs.
In Derocher’s view, feeding and relocation will work for polar bears only so long as they have some habitat remaining, which is unlikely in at least two-thirds of the Arctic in the next century if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed dramatically. “Keeping hundreds of semi-wild bears on a diet of bear chow doesn’t fit my personal philosophy, but perhaps centuries from now, it will be viewed as visionary, if we eventually control those greenhouse gases,” Derocher says.
The scientists’ report acknowledges that in a worst-case scenario, where the primary goal is to preserve the genetic structure of the species, zoos around the world could play an important role. Amstrup, who is in favour of this, says there are signs that the US is at least considering the idea of easing restrictions on the importation of orphan cubs found in the wild.
Derocher believes that the five polar bear nations have got to at least consider these and other management strategies. “We have covered the science side of the issue very well, but the policy and management aspects are locked in the past,” he says. “We still manage polar bears in Canada like nothing has changed. Other countries are moving on some aspects of future polar bear management, but it is glacial compared to the actual changes we’re seeing in sea ice and the bears themselves.”
The Canadian government has shown few signs of rallying to the call. No one in government is talking about supplemental and diversionary feeding as was discussed in Churchill in the 1970s. It’s now more difficult than ever to send a bear to a zoo. The research on the west coast of Hudson Bay that once made Canada a leader in polar bear science has been reduced to one scientist whose budget has been slashed. Like everyone else in government whose research has anything to do with climate change, Nick Lunn is rarely allowed to speak to the media.
Things are different in the United States. The George W. Bush administration had been so loath to involve itself in issues that touch on climate change that the Centre for Biological Diversity had to sue the federal government to get polar bears on an endangered list. But in 2008, Bush’s interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne responded to the US Geological Survey expert panel report on melting sea ice by agreeing to list polar bears as “threatened.” “My hope is that the projections from these models are wrong, and that sea ice does not recede further,” Kempthorne said at the time. “But the best science available to me currently says that this is not likely to happen in the next 45 years.”
Since then, the US has tried twice and failed to get the polar bear uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The uplisting would have put the polar bear in the category of the world’s most endangered species, which includes rhinos and elephants, whose horns have been exploited by poachers. But Canada has voted against the US on CITES, and it has done almost nothing to at least consider worst-case scenarios where crisis management may be required. Only the Manitoba government is taking the future of polar bears seriously.
Neither Derocher nor any of the other scientists whose names are attached to the paper believes that the solutions will come easily. The idea of a controlled reduction of bears or the killing of starved bears would be hard to sell to a global public that grieved the death of the polar bear Knut in a Berlin zoo in 2011. It will also be a challenge to convince the Inuit, who depend on sports polar bear hunts for badly needed revenues. Many of them believe that Canada’s polar bear population is stable or even rising.
But the scientists say it is important to at least begin asking how we might manage a crisis. University of Alberta biologist Ian Stirling, one of the world’s foremost polar bear scientists, says the Conservation Letters paper should be seen as “a starting point that clarifies the need to be developing some preliminary plans for dealing with such problems.” Far better to come up with options and plans now, the scientists say, than to allow a crisis to develop that forces decisions to be taken under the pressure of the world’s media circulating images of starving bears on shrivelling ice floes. “We have to remind readers, and hopefully policy people, that the long-term future of polar bears is in jeopardy,” Amstrup says. “It makes managers and policy people aware of the various kinds of on-the-ground actions that may be applied and makes them begin to think of the varying levels of cost that may be involved in the different options they may choose.” Contemplating, that is, a problem that we may have helped create.