I recently read a blog posted by one of the WordPress bloggers I follow. The Skeptical Prophet wrote Polar Bears – A Cruel Reality. The article is intriguing, and I don’t disagree with SP about his stance against the media and their hate against Polar Bears. I do disagree with him on the points that polar bears are headed for demise, and primarily at the hands of humans or human activity. This is a subject of a lot of controversy, but there are some facts that should be more prevalent in our society regarding global warming (namely the idea that it is “man made”) and the impact of human activity on polar bear populations.
I agree with SP entirely that polar bear cannibalism is not an indication that these animals are immoral and cruel (not that animals generally live by a moral code…I believe they are quite intelligent in their own right, but I am not sure morality applies to animals as it does to humans). Its a fact of life, as simply put life in general is a struggle, not just for polar bears, but for the very vast majority of animal life. It should also be noted that cannibalism is not a trait solely restricted to polar bears. Many bear populations exhibit cannibalism. A few notable examples where it is far more prevalent than in polar bears are grizzly bears and kodiak bears. In both species, male cannibalism of bear cubs not their own offspring is a common practice, and exhibited far more frequently than polar bear cannibalism. The reasons are two fold…the primary driver is to seed new bear populations of their own and eliminate competition (why I can’t say…bears don’t have a strong mother/father/children family structure…but its the nature of bears), but bear cubs as a food source when other food is scarce is not unheard of either…and food scarcity exists in more wildlife populations than just polar bears. So, why aren’t kodiak and grizzly bear cannibalism a raging issue in the media?
All that said, here are a few facts about polar bears that I think SP (and the general population), should know, as his own idea that polar bears will be extinct before your die, and that their habitat is being overly encroached upon by man (either directly or indirectly via the largely unfounded idea that *man made* global warming is a polar bear killer) is no more enlightened than the medias idea that polar bears are cruel and immoral.
Studies done by WWF, or the World Wildlife Fund, have demonstrated that Polar Bear populations today are far from the minimal, dwindling population they are proclaimed to be. Among many scientific and wildlife organizations the desire to list polar bears as an endangered species is disputed, and not completely accepted as a fact by all parties. They are currently indicated as vulnerable, however even that assessment may be in error given the facts. Estimates indicate that as far back as the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Polar Bear populations were as low as 5000 world wide. Causes for the low population generally point primarily to excessive hunting, and have little to do with global warming. Populations today are as high as 25,000, with a mere 16% of populations in specific areas decreasing, while 60-85% of the population is stable and increasing. As with all wildlife populations, there is no simple linear increase when a species is healthy…within the last decade there were estimates that polar bear populations were as high as 35,000 and as low as 20,000. Population growth is often cyclical, and moves up and down in waves, reacting to a variety of causes (not simply “global warming”). To put this population figure in context, here are the populations of other bear species. Kodiak bear population ranges between 3500 and 4000 in total. Grizzly bears total about 50,000 worldwide. Giant Panda populations are a mere 2000 to 3000 worldwide! Brown bear population is about 200,000, however unlike all the other species listed, this population count is spread across multiple continents and regions. In any given region, the individual population count ranges from about 10,000 to over 50,000. In context, the population of Polar Bears doesn’t seem all that bad. Its significantly better than Kodiak and Giant Panda populations, although not as high as Grizzly and Brown bear populations on the same continent. It sits rather happily right in the middle.
The WWF has also found a POSITIVE correlation between an increase in temperatures and strengthening, stabilization and increases in polar bear populations. Ironically, in contrast to popularly held and politically charged belief, WWF’s report has indicated that one of the key declining populations lives in a region where temperatures have been dropping, while stable and increasing populations live in areas where temperatures have been INCREASING! Excessive cold is not necessarily the sole driver of polar bear population health…and it may be a minor factor overall. Neither is simple air temperature the primary driver of the formation of sea ice, the presumed key to polar bear population health and source of their primary food. According to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, air temperature is a factor, but far from the most important. High surface motion of the sea tends to break up ice and prevent it from forming even in excessive cold (if you have doubts about this, just watch the TV show Deadliest Catch during their winter outings….calm seas mean thick sea ice…stormy seas mean broken and chunky sea ice and lots of open water), indicating that wind patterns and effects of ocean currents on surface motion have a greater impact. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has also indicated that Arctic sea ice volumes have increased somewhat since the late 1970’s, and that significant decreases in sea ice in polar bear habitat is a myth. (I can’t say about total sea ice volume around the entire pole, I believe the Canadian study only addressed sea ice around our continent, which is the primary population center for polar bears.)
Even if there was a decline in sea ice, that does not mean the demise of polar bears. Two key factors play a role there. First and foremost, seals are only a primary food source for polar bears. They have never subsisted solely on seals, and have always had a fairly varied diet of fish, caribou, birds and waterfowl. Polar Bears have long been known to scavenge the carcasses of whales and walrus, and the dramatic scenes in shows like Planet Earth (which I actually LOVE, btw) where a polar bear loses his attempt to take down a living walrus are the extremely RARE case. Polar Bears are, like most bears, omnivorous as well. They have been known to eat vegetation when they can, although in most cases such vegetation is seaborn rather than landborn…kelp and other forms of seaweed. Scavenging human trash for food is also not a trait solely exhibited by polar bears, and neither is that a new food source for them. Polar bears have scavenged trash bins in northern cities for decades. Brown bears, black bears, grizzly bears, etc. are all known to scavenge human food when they have the opportunity (just think back to the last time you camped in a national park…remember all those signs about keeping your food locked away tight and secure from bears?)
I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. I do certainly believe the Earth goes through climate cycles, some of them hot, some of them cool. I believe the amount of energy from the sun is so many orders of magnitude greater than all the energy mankind can conjure ourselves that our impact on a global scale is minimal (although we do impact our bubbles, around urban and metropolitan areas…however our impact, according to scientific data, is largely self-contained and limited, and has a minor effect on the globe at large). I believe the data indicates that polar bears are growing in population, and that their populations are healthier given a warmer arctic climate…and I am not worried they will go extinct…at least, not due to changes in climate. We still certainly have the power to directly impact or even decimate their populations through hunting or the simple hateful will to wipe them out, if we so pleased, a fact of human nature that most definitely sets us apart from the animals. I find it sad that these beautiful, majestic creatures have been usurped by politicians, the media and scientists with an agenda to jerk at our sympathy or hatred in an effort to control. I don’t believe we can directly ascribe human morality to animals like bears. I don’t believe it is fair to call them cruel…life is, always has been, and always will be a struggle. Different species react to the stress of life in different ways….polar bears are powerful creatures, and their response is to exhibit their power. However on the flip side, if we jump to the other pole of our planet, you can observe Penguins braving harsher conditions than Polar Bears with a level of family structure, nurturing, and endurance that is almost the opposite of the Polar Bears response of power. The responses seem fitting to the species, natural, if at times heartbreaking.