Scientist on Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear Population: "I Consider Myself a Historian"

Thomas Schueneman

Dr. Nick Lunn in the field - Photo courtesy of Polar Bear International

Polar bear on the Western Hudson Bay -

My recent adventure participating in the Earthwatch expedition based at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre presented a unique opportunity for a one-on-one discussion with Dr. Nick Lunn of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Nick is one of a handful of scientists focusing their efforts, knowledge, and talent on studying the polar bear.

In other words, Nick is a polar bear expert.

Nick arrived at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre just as our team was finishing up their work sampling and monitoring snowpack conditions in the area. I and one other team member stayed behind an extra day waiting for the train to take us back to Winnipeg (a story in itself) and our lives “down south”, leaving just two CNSC staff, Nick, my fellow EW teammate Chris, and I fending for ourselves for the evening.

By asking Nick his opinion on the delayed decision by the U.S. on whether to list the polar bear as endangered, I had the good fortune of opening Nick up for what turned into a nearly two-hour discussion on polar bears, climate change, and environmental policy both in Canada and the United States.

Here are some highlights of our discussion:

  1. There Are More Polar Bears Now Than Ever! At Least That’s What the Wall Street Journal and the Heartland Institute Says…
    Oh really?It isn’t hard to find media reports stating that polar bear populations are at historic highs – up to 25,000 now from a low of 5,000 or so in the 50’s or 60’s. This gets a chuckle from Nick. Look in any of those reports for the source of their conjecture. The fact is nobody was even paying attention to polar bear numbers in the 50’s or 60’s, much less conducting a scientifically sound census survey. So where do they come up with those numbers? Hmm… Good question.In the 50’s and 60’s polar bear were being shot, killed, hunted down wholesale. It has only been within the past couple of decades that scientists, government leaders, and wildlife managers have realized that it might be prudent to put some limits on the carnage to assess what it is we have in the way of polar bears and to begin serious, ongoing scientific study of them.What happens when uncontrolled hunting is stopped? Gosh, it seems there may have been some recovery in polar bear populations due to the alleviated stress from hunting. (Incidentally, 500 bears are still harvested every year in Canada.)When you hear anyone authoritatively pronouncing that polar bear numbers have recovered from 5000 to 25,000 just know that they’re simply guessing. Right off the bat a reason to question the veracity of their argument. (And when the Wall Street journal says anything about environmental policy, assume they likely don’t know a whit about what they’re talking about.)
  2. Polar Bears in the Western Hudson Bay Region
    Churchill, Manitoba is widely know as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, strategically located in the midst of one of the world’s 13 polar bear populations. While it is possible to encounter a bear at any time in or around the Churchill area, the crowds come in October and November – bear “high season” – to catch a glimpse of a bear while riding in the comfort of a “tundra buggy” (I say you haven’t really experienced the area until you’ve taken a ride in a dread sled – but again, that’s another story). There are other attractions in Churchill; historic forts from the Hudson Bay Company days to Beluga whale watching and birding. But Polar Bears are what give Churchill a reason to call itself a “world capital”.This may not last for very much longer and is why Nick, studying the Western Hudson Bay population as he does, says he considers himself a historian. Those are his words, not mine. The population in the Western Hudson Bay region has declined 22% in 17 years, to less than 1000 bears.The condition of adult bears has steadily been decreasing, with the average weight of females declining toward a threshold at which the chances of it bearing viable cubs becomes doubtful. As Nick explained, that threshold may be reached, if the trends continue as they have, as soon as 2012.The principal cause for the deteriorating condition of this population of bears is the early break-up of sea ice. Bears have to go further and work harder to find their principal source of food, the ring seal, and thus the female gives birth to her cubs more emaciated and less able to nurture her cubs. More cubs are not surviving to adulthood. The overall threat to the population is that current generations of bear will not be replaced.
  3. Two out of Thirteen
    Again, you’ll find plenty to media reports speaking to the thriving polar bear populations around the world. Just not from research scientists that are actually studying them in the field. Yes, by that I mean scientists that get their butt out from behind a desk, put on their long-johns, and actually go into the arctic and get up close and personal not only with the bear, but with the harsh conditions in the arctic.I encourage you to go out and canvas your own sources of information on this, but this is what I got from Nick (the polar bear expert, while we chatted near the arctic circle one evening):Of the thirteen populations of polar bear in the world, only two are considered as thriving, as many as five may currently be stable, and the rest are either threatened, in decline, or there is simply not enough data to make a reliable assessment.Heck, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Maybe those giggling fools from the Wall Street Journal are right!Not bloody likely. The Western Hudson Bay region is one of the most studied populations in the world, so the data set for these bears is the most complete and accurate available. The low arctic region they inhabit is an ecosystem highly vulnerable to climate change, and so it is likely that what we are seeing with this population will continue to spread throughout all circumpolar bear populations as environmental changes in the north accelerate.
  4. Who Cares?
    The polar bear has become the poster child for global warming. When people think of global warming, they likely conjure up an image of a cute cuddly bear cub. In the Western Hudson Bay, the chances are ever increasing that that cute bear cub won’t make it to adulthood.But does it really matter? If there are no polar bears around in a few decades, will it really chance anything in our daily lives? Aren’t attempts to list the polar bear as endangered or threatened just liberal attempts to control our lives and put the UN in charge of us all? Isn’t this all just alarmist clap-trap by tree-hugging global warming fanatics? (Well, if you actually believe those last two statements then I’ve got nothing for you. Go forth and delude yourselves if you must.)The polar bear is, of course, just one aspect of a finely balanced and fragile ecosystem; one that is stressed and changing fast. We ignore those changes in the arctic, to the polar bear, and all that supports and depends on it, to our own peril.As goes the polar bear, we have to wonder, goes the rest of the world?Then we’ll all be historians.

Further Reading
Polar Bear Institute
Canadian Wildlife Service

Photo Credit: Polar Bear International