Scientists Explore Options as Polar Bears Face New Threats

The surge of hunting that depleted many polar bear populations in the 20th century is largely under control. But just as the species has been recovering from that threat, global warming is creating new pressures through the loss of summer sea ice and other impacts on the bears’ preferred maritime habitat.

Recent DNA analysis has shown that polar bears are a far older species than was thought even a few years ago, and they clearly are adaptable and resilient. But it’s also clear that some populations will have a very hard time in coming decades. What should people do in such cases?

A previously  written article about a valuable proposal by some scientists to start planning a long-term conservation strategy focused on regions of the Arctic where sea ice is expected to persist even with substantial warming.

But a new policy paper in Conservation Letters, “Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation,” proposes a series of steps that could kick in a lot sooner — including everything from relocation programs to feeding of starving bears or in some cases “intentional population reduction” — a k a culling. There’s a solid look at the paper in Yale Environment 360.

The relocation and feeding seemed a bit of an overreach compared to what has been done for other species, particularly predators, when they’re in extremis.

the public views polar bears the same way as most other endangered species and this is one of the reasons that we laid out some of the options.  If there is a species where we may make extraordinary efforts, polar bears likely fit right up there with giant pandas and California condors.  The paper isn’t a prescription for what should be done but rather what could be done.

This is a policy perspective paper and what is clearly lacking is policy and plans about what will happen when we see a sudden change in a polar bear population.  Our analyses of sea ice suggest such events will happen and likely much sooner than expected in Hudson Bay. The worst time to make policy and management plans is in the middle of a crisis.  If you consider the response that is generated by a whale stranding event in the U.S., you have a sense of what is possible.  We could see an impending starvation event in polar bears and there is no established response plan anywhere.  Some wildlife managers I’ve spoken too are worried about exactly such events: they know the problem will land on their desks and the pressure from the top will be intense.

We lay out the whole spectrum of options in the paper: do nothing, euthanize the starving, right through to feeding bears.  Europeans keep their brown bear populations alive in many countries by feeding them.  Black bears in Washington State are fed to reduce damage on trees (e.g., Ziegltrum. 2006, “Cost-effectiveness of the black bear supplemental feeding program in western Washington,” Wildlife Society Bulletin).

We can feed black bears to protect trees so its hard to believe there won’t be a major push to feed polar bears for at least part of the year to either keep populations from crashing in the early stages of collapse or even in the longer term to artificially support a semi-wild population.  If not mistaken, California condors are given clean carcasses as a supplemental food source.  foreseeing huge pressure on politicians and wildlife managers to intervene.  The “do nothing” option isn’t likely acceptable to many but for others, it will be the preferred option. We need to have these discussions in advance and nothing happens in the north without consultation as it is often mandated to consult with communities.

Ultimately, conservation biology is a forward-looking practice.  For polar bears, we have many managers stuck in the past. Many politicians and upper level bureaucrats are ignoring the issues.  We’re not dealing with greenhouse gases so we will be dealing with starving polar bears and disappearing populations.

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