September 14, 2007

Polar bear die-off unlikely: GN official

Wildlife research director dismisses dire forecast by U.S. agency

JOHN THOMPSON

Fears that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will die off in the next 50 years are overblown, says Mitchell ­Taylor, the Government of Nunavut's director of wildlife research.

"I think it's naïve and presumptuous," Taylor said of the report, released by U.S. Geological Survey on Friday, which warns that many of the world's polar bears will die as sea ice vanishes due to a warming climate.

"As the sea ice goes, so go the polar bears," said Steve Amstrup, who led the study.

But Taylor says that's not the case. He points to Davis Strait, one of the southern-most roaming grounds of polar bears. According to the USGS, Davis Strait ought to be among the first places where polar bears will starve due to shrinking seasonal sea ice, which scientists say will deprive the bears of a vital platform to hunt seals.

Yet "Davis Strait is crawling with polar bears," Taylor said. "It's not safe to camp there. They're fat. The mothers have cubs. The cubs are in good shape."

Other than Davis Strait, which is hunted by Inuit from Pangnirtung, Iqaluit and Kimmirut, the USGS also predicts polar bears will perish in Baffin Bay, Foxe Basin, and South and West Baffin.

In fact, the USGS predicts the only polar bears to survive by the end of the century will be those found in Canada's Arctic archipelago, and on the west coast of Greenland. Those in Alaska and Russia, and in much of Nunavut and all of Nunavik, will have perished.

But Taylor says the report is needlessly pessimistic. While he agrees that seals are essential food for bears as they fatten up during the spring and summer months - seal blubber makes up half of the bears' energy intake - he also suspects bears will be able to supplement their diet with other foods, such as walrus.

During the summer months polar bears may also forage on berries, sedges and other plants, as well as bird eggs, to supplement their diet.

And Taylor also points out female polar bears go nine months without eating at all during pregnancy.

Besides, Taylor says he and numerous Inuit hunters have seen bears catch seal without the presence of sea ice. Bears sometimes find a place on shore to pounce on seals swimming by. Or they may catch seals caught in tidal pools, or sneak up on their prey at night.

Taylor even suggests polar bears may float still on the water to fool seals into thinking they are hunks of sea ice.

The Government of Nunavut is conducting a study of the Davis Strait bear population. Results of the study won't be released until 2008, but Taylor says it appears there are some 3,000 bears in an area - a big jump from the current estimate of about 850 bears.

"That's not theory. That's not based on a model. That's observation of reality," he says.

And despite the fact that some of the most dramatic changes to sea ice is seen in seasonal ice areas such as Davis Strait, seven or eight of the bears measured and weighed for the study this summer are among the biggest on record, Taylor said.

Yet anecdotes abound of skinny polar bears wandering from their traditional hunting grounds in search of food - such as an email circulated recently with a photo of a gaunt bear with skin hanging off its bones, spotted 160 kilometres inland from Ungava Bay.

Taylor bristles at that photo's mention. He says the bear is clearly an elderly male in its late 20s, rather than a young female, as it has been otherwise identified.

"It probably wandered out there to end its life in peace," he said. "That's nature. It's not climate change."

He also questions the claim that the papers used to support the position of the USGS on polar bears have been peer reviewed. "The first time I saw them was when I downloaded them today," he said.

Taylor characterizes much of the public discussion over, as one headline has called it, "the appalling fate of the polar bear," as "hysteria."

Taylor admits he does not see eye to eye with many other polar bear biologist, many of whom have expressed concern over whether polar bears will survive in a warmer climate.

"Unlike all the others, I live in the north. My friends and neighbours are Nunavummiut," he said. "I'm talking to people about polar bears all the time."

The Geological Survey produced its report to assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its decision on whether to list polar bears as an endangered species. If polar bears make the endangered list, it would effectively end the U.S. sports hunt, which brings about $2 million to Nunavut communities each year.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has until January 2009 to make its decision.

Two-thirds of the world's polar bears live in Canada.