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Are Polar Bears Really An Endangered Species?

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Christina Wu

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In Hudson Bay  (Churchill, Canada) it doesn’t seem like polar bears are going extinct; hundreds of bears gather there every year to hunt for seals, and the town no longer treats as an endangered species, close to extinction, but more as a nuisance. If you’ve ever seen a shot of a polar bear, there’s a good chance it was taken in Churchill, as Churchill is the most accessible site for viewing polar bears, drawing over 10,000 visitors a year.

Mid-November is the most popular time for tourists to see polar bears—having not eaten a full meal for months, they spend their day conserving their energy. This is the time to see them walk in circles, lick the ground and kill time, and when tourists hope to get the best and most entertaining photos.

Polar bears have been the face of the campaign against global warming for some time now; almost every article about climate change and our neglect of nature features a photo of a sad looking polar bear on a flimsy piece of ice.

In 2004, numbers showed that there were just over 900 bears left in Hudson Bay and estimations predicted that the bear population would fall below 700 by 2011.  Today, it is estimated that there are over 1000 bears in Hudson Bay, therefore MORE bears than there were 10 years ago, and nearly twice of what had been predicted for 2011!

So while some people say that the case of the polar bears are the biggest conservation success story in the history of the world, others are still adamant that these populations are still in decline due to drowning and starvation.

So how do we make estimations about polar bear population numbers?

The dynamics of estimating polar bear populations are complex, contradictory and controversial. This is due to the fact that working with bears is extremely difficult, as they can range across international boundaries, over hundreds of kilometres of ice and open water. Moreover, many bears may hide by digging dens and camouflaging themselves on snowfields.

Moreover, mark-recapture methods, commonly used to estimate an animal population sizes, are hard to do with polar bears, because it involves temporarily capturing a small portion of the population. For bears, it would require tranquilizing them, which is dangerous for both researcher and bear. Moreover, the Inuit people object to drugging bears because this would cause them significant stress, and is an affront to traditional ecological practices.

Scientists end up counting bears using many different techniques, as well as taking into account observations by knowledgeable residents. Therefore population estimates remain estimates.

However, counting methods are inconsistent, and bear populations are counted differently from one year to the next—not to mention that some populations haven’t been counted in years, while others have never been counted. The Polar Bear Specialist Group has pointed to 10 of 19 polar bear subpopulations as being data-deficient.

Despite these limitations, we can infer from the numbers we do have. In Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island, the polar bear population has more than doubled from 900 animals in the 1970s to around 2,100 today. 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.

So if polar bear populations are increasing, what’s all the fuss about?

The problem is that researchers have discovered a direct link between the polar bears’ declining physical health and warm years. As wildlife biologist Lily Peacock says:

 “Some populations appear to be doing OK now, but what’s frightening is what might happen in the very near future”

In a way, we could say that polar bears are a conservation miracle. But, we have to keep in mind that they reproduce slowly, so counting the number of animals alive today could turn out to be an inaccurate way of painting the big picture.

The number of cubs observed in Hudson Bay is significantly lower than what it used to be, and while older bears are fat enough to survive a few lean years, younger bears are weaker. These low numbers undermine the idea that increasing numbers of bears are the result of overall population growth.

Finally, while we always talk about polar bears as a single species group, we must remember that the data regarding the survival of one subpopulation says very little about the health of another one. As Ottawa’s senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Programme, Geoff York says:

 “The thing to remember is the vast range of the polar bear and the utter size of the Arctic. Impacts from warming are unfolding at different rates and different time scales.”

Examples of this include the polar bears that make their home in James Bay, which have lived through ice-free summers for thousands of years. Bears in the High Arctic Archipelago, however, are unable to hunt seals because the ice is so thick. And while we reiterate the fact that global warming could prove to be catastrophic by reducing available ice in the southern reaches of the bears’ range, higher north, such an increase of open waters could actually make hunting easier.

Finally, to make things a little more complex, having too many bears may lead to higher competition for resources, which would then decrease the health of the entire population, and which is why limited hunting of bears has been seen as a potential way of increasing overall health.

So are polar bears still endangered? Let us know your opinion in the comments section below!