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The Polar Bear in Canada

Published 09/15/10
By Barry Kent MacKay, senior program associate

Surely one of the most iconic species of wildlife to inhabit Canada is the polar bear. Along with the beaver, moose, loon, eagle and wolf it is among the native wildlife species most often portrayed and easily identified by Canadians. But very few Canadians have seen one outside of zoos. Those who have are often eco-tourists who have made the trek to Churchill, Manitoba, on the west shore of Hudson Bay, which is an immense inland sea of 822,324 square kilometers (about 320,000 square miles). Polar bears move up and down that shoreline, their numbers often concentrated in and around the town of Churchill, in the province’s far northeast.

Townsfolk have something of a love-hate relationship with the polar bears. On one hand the bears do attract large numbers of tourists willing to pay good money at a time of year when there are few other sources of income, to be taken in “tundra buggies” — huge cab-like conveyances mounted high above the ground on giant tires and tractor treads — in search of polar bears. On the other hand, polar bears are immensely powerful animals, able to haul a beluga whale or a walrus up out of the sea and onto the ice, and thus can present a distinct threat to humans. Polar bears are known to wander down the town’s main street, and when that happens bear alerts and warning sirens alert people to the danger.

The species is native to the five countries that border, or have states or other territories that border, the Arctic Ocean. Canada probably is home to about half of the world’s roughly estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears.

For management purposes the polar bear has been divided into some 19 relatively discreet populations, of which 13 are in Canada. As with the closely related grizzly bear, the main threats to the polar bear are encroachment, habitat loss and hunting. But there is a new threat that is of the kind that, alas, many people would prefer to discredit or ignore: climate change.

Global warming: An accepted fact up north

While the debate about whether global warming is a real phenomenon goes on in much of the world, in northern Canada there is no such debate. The people who live there can see with their own eyes that the ice is melting. There are cold years and warm years, but the changes that Inuit and other people in the far north are now encountering are unprecedented, not just in human lifetimes, but in a cultural tradition that literally goes backs thousands of years. Southern species of flora and fauna are showing up with increasing frequency north of where they have ever been recorded. Glaciers are melting, sea ice disappearing.

The fabled Northwest Passage, a theoretical sea link through the islands that make up Canada’s Arctic archipelago, was searched for by earlier explorers for many years. It could not be found, we now know, simply because parts of it were inevitably choked with ice. But now it is open in the summer, and Canada, previously complacent on the issue, is currently engaged in an intense effort to establish sovereignty over the region, foreseeing, for the first time ever, shipping lanes utilized by many nations among islands once joined by ice year round.

The polar bear is believed to have evolved from a common ancestor with the grizzly bear some 250,000 years ago, and going back that far in time, there appears never to have been such a loss of the Arctic’s summer sea ice. Of course there were warming and cooling periods before, but they unfolded, best evidence indicates, over vast spans of time compared with the rapidity of the current changes.

There are some grim possible scenarios in the future, the most serious being the possibility that the thawing of the permafrost underlying the Arctic landscape will release vast amounts of methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, thus exacerbating and accelerating global warming even more. Such massive shifts can result in profound changes (which appear already to be among us, although some deny it) in weather patterns, and one result could be the production of cooling trends in some regions, which is why many scientists prefer the term “climate change” over “global warming.” Skeptics invariably point to areas or seasons that are cooler than normal as “proof” that global warming does not exist.

Ice is vital to the species' survival

The polar regions are, however, areas where the trend in temperatures has been steadily and dramatically upward, and has been measurable by people on the ground — particularly in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, where human habitation has such a long history. Satellite imagery and sophisticated modern technology clearly illustrate a decline in the southern polar ice cap, as well.

The warming of the Arctic and subarctic bodes ill for the polar bear simply because it evolved to occupy a very specific ecological niche, one that includes sea ice. Unlike its relative, the grizzly, the polar bear is not much of an omnivore — a species with wide dietary choices — but subsists mainly on seals and fish. Unlike in more temperate regions, there simply are not a lot of other food options for most of the year.

It is not that they can’t, like other bears, store fat and lower their metabolic needs during the bleakest, coldest months when food is at its lowest ebb, but to do so they must be able to consume a sufficient amount of food to build up thick layers of fat during spring, summer and fall. The polar bear is by far the most carnivorous of bears, and its main food is the ringed seal, with something approaching 50 annually consumed per bear on average, along with some larger bearded seals (usually only eaten by adult male polar bears, who have the necessary strength to overcome such large animals) and possibly a small number of harp seals added to the diet. These are “ice” seals, animals who need floating rafts of ice upon which to give birth and nurture their young. The ringed seal is crucial to the survival of the polar bear as it is small enough for the female to eat. The larger male bear, who does not help take care of the cubs, is capable of taking the odd beluga whale or walrus, or the bearded seal, but the female requires the smaller ringed seal, and that seal requires ice. So do the bears themselves as they travel in search of food. They can swim great distances, but at a cost to their energy that is much greater than travel on the floating ice, if it exists.

One odd manifestation of this rapid change in Arctic conditions has been the appearance of some hybrids between the polar and the grizzly bear. The latter, with its much broader range of possible foods, is moving north into what had been the lonely realm of the polar bear as winters shorten and weather becomes less frigid.

The future's full of challenges

The experts claim that even if all human-caused greenhouse emissions were to cease immediately — an impossible scenario — it would take many centuries, even millennia, for the current and very well-documented warming trend to level off, and then to reverse itself. Meanwhile, the situation is simply going to deteriorate for the polar bear.

Many critics of prudent conservation suggest that evolution will, as it always has, take care of the polar bear — that it will survive the changes.

For that to be the case, two factors need to be in play.

One: Change in the environment has to be slow enough to allow time for evolutionary adaptation.

Two: The gene pool has to be large enough to allow the variations and mutations to exist that will allow adaptation to ecological change to occur. Obviously those individual animals who do better under the changing conditions will, on average, be the ones to pass on such genetic traits to their offspring, while others, more dependent upon the vanishing cold, will not. But the smaller the gene pool — that is to say, the fewer polar bears — the less likelihood of the necessary adaptation occurring.

There is a dilemma. Dead polar bears, their parts and derivatives, are highly valued by some people. The desire to kill these superb animals is so extreme in the hearts of many trophy hunters that the rich ones are willing to pay bizarre amounts of hard cash to be allowed to kill the bears.

Canada is the only country where polar bears naturally occur that allows the export of the animals, or parts of them, for commercial purposes, such as hunting trophies or zoo specimens. In 2010 the United States, recognizing that the polar bear is indeed endangered, sought to have the polar bear listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Canada objected strongly and the resolution was, unfortunately, defeated. Had it succeeded it would become illegal for Canada, or any country, to export polar bears, or parts of them, for “primarily commercial” purposes.

Nunavut strongly oppose protections

Strong opposition to significant protection for the polar bear comes from Nunavut, easternmost of the three northern territories in Canada. Trophy hunting is big business in Nunavut. Of course the government claims the polar bear is not endangered and that more are being seen than ever.

There is something of a cultural clash. On the one hand the science shows that the polar bear is indeed in decline overall. In 2009 the IUCN polar bear specialist group reported that of the 13 polar bear populations in Canada, only one is increasing, seven are declining and three are stable, with not enough information about the others to know their status. That’s two more populations decreasing than was true four years earlier.

But on the other hand, in parts of Nunavut there have been increases in sightings. The native people depend on lore for many of their decisions and assure us that their elders believe there is nothing to worry about.

But their elders never experienced global climate change, and an increase in individual bears in any one location does not mean that there is no overall global decline in the species, as indicated by studies in other areas. And the elders don’t dispute global warming. What their history can’t tell them is the effects global climate change have on food availability for the polar bears who, like other bear species, will more likely come into communities looking for food when natural sources are missing than when conditions are normal. For untold human generations to come, things will not be normal.

It also has to be said that there is an economic incentive for maintaining the hunt, which sees foreign hunters bring new cash in significant amounts into the local economy.

While it is not possible to change the warming trends in the Arctic — indeed, they are likely to accelerate with the thawing of permafrost, and perhaps to a dramatic degree some decades from now — something can be done here and now to prevent the loss of individual bears and subsequent decrease in genetic variability, if Canada can end the export of polar bear trophies. However, that would also mean the end of revenues that they generate.

The equation is not new. Many species of wild animals, from northern cod to bluefin tuna to blue whales, have generated fortunes for their exploiters while being driven to ever smaller numbers until reaching rare or endangered status — from which recovery is slow to non-existent.

Zoos are a big part of the problem

While the threat from zoos is far less than that of climate change and hunting, the fact is that polar bears are extremely popular with zoos around the world. And yet the species is notoriously ill-suited to do well in the captivity that the zoos typically provide.

Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck Canada, after viewing the polar bear at the Taipei Zoo in Taiwan, wrote, “The fur on her head, back and belly was almost completely gone. Her exposed skin, normally black, was a pasty white color. Her head looked like it was covered in scabs. She didn’t even look like a polar bear.”

She had come from Canada and was imprisoned in the tropical heat of the zoo in Taipei where she, and her companion, subsequently died.

Fortunately, around the mid-1990s, the main source of polar bears, Manitoba, stopped shipping them to zoos, many in warm climates and ill-equipped to provide the needs of an animal who, in the wild, may have home ranges of up to nearly 600,000 square kilometers (about 230,000 square miles) and have evolved to live in some of the coldest regions on Earth. Anyone who has seen a typical polar bear in a zoo has probably seen the stereotypical repetitive behavior that indicates stress and is never seen in wild bears.

But recently things have changed. Around the world zoos are retrofitting their empty polar bear exhibits and, sadly, have plans to again feature the species. An organization called Polar Bears International has formed and claims to have polar bear conservation as its primary objective. It sounds good, but a scrutiny of its plans reveals that it seems to be promoting the idea that bears who are orphaned or injured can and should be conditioned to live in such zoos.

Unlike Canada’s other two bear species, there is no pragmatic way to successfully rehabilitate orphaned or injured polar bears into the wild. Their life histories are simply too complex to be replicated in captivity. Thus baby polar bears orphaned (often when their mother is shot) are either euthanized or, if Polar Bears International has its way, conditioned for lives in captivity in zoos that cannot possibly accommodate their inherent needs.

Sanctuaries could be part of the solution

There is a third, humane alternative, and that is to provide for their needs in polar bear sanctuaries specifically designed to accommodate the species, in a suitably cold climate. Such a facility potentially exists in Cochrane, Ontario, and far better facilities exist in Scandinavia. Others could be built where the bears' needs could be met. What is needed are not more polar bears in zoos — sitting, sleeping or pacing their miserable lives away — but large, cold-climate enclosures where the bears can just be bears, with plenty of room and distractions and where, as is true in the wild, the public may or may not see them.

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