Global warming won’t hurt polar bears, GN says

They’re “intelligent and quick to adapt to new circumstances”


Climate change is not pushing polar bears to the brink of extinction and polar bears and people will adapt to a warmer Arctic, says a wildlife director with the Government of Nunavut.

“No evidence exists that suggests that both bears and the conservation systems that regulate them will not adapt and respond to the new conditions,” says the GN’s director of wildlife research, Mitch Taylor, in a 12-page report to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

If it’s true that climate change threatens polar bears, then all species around the world are “threatened,” Taylor said.

Taylor, Nunavut’s director of wildlife research, submitted the report to counter the proposed up-listing of the polar bear to “threatened status” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Taylor emphasizes polar bears’ adaptability, saying they evolved from grizzly bears about 250,000 years ago and developed as a separate species about 125,000 years ago during a period when climate change also occurred.

“Polar bears are obviously adapted to the changing environment, as evidenced by their presence today,” he writes. “Polar bears are intelligent and quick to adapt to new circumstances.”

Taylor said “much is made of the reduction in the ice coverage of the Arctic Basin.” Loss of sea ice may cause some polar bears to move to onshore areas, but Taylor said the transition to land would “not necessarily” lead to the extinction of polar bears.

Warmer temperatures could, Taylor suggests, even increase food sources for polar bears — although he acknowledges that “this has not been demonstrated and appears not to have been the case in the Western Hudson Bay,” where polar bear numbers have been dropping.

Taylor also said there’s no evidence that polar bear populations are at risk from oil and gas development or contaminants.

Taylor hopes to sway a review underway at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced last February that it would respond to a 154-page petition by conservation groups to list the polar bear as a species at risk.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invited comments from a variety of groups about polar bears’ population distribution, habitat, the effects of climate change on the bears and their prey, potential threats from development, contaminants and poaching.

At the conclusion of its year-long review to see if polar bears should be declared “threatened,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will publish a decision.

If the listing as a threatened species is “believed to be warranted,” the agency will publish a proposed rule to list the polar bear as “threatened.”

The best-case scenario for Nunavut would be a partial listing of polar bears by population or a decision that proper management could avoid any listing — and Taylor makes arguments for both scenarios.

Taylor is concerned that listing the bears as threatened could lead to a ban on sports hunting. Without that financial incentive to preserve the bears, he worries that money won’t be spent on research and management.

“A failure or even reduction in the level of effort put into monitoring polar bear populations could put them at risk,” he said.

Taylor also argues that each polar bear population is different: some populations are more robust than others, and “each population should be considered independently.”

Canadian researchers have reported a 17 per cent decline in polar bear numbers on the western coast of Hudson Bay from 1,200 to fewer than 1,000 over the past 10 years.

But Taylor challenges the scope of the research and said the polar bears there are also affected by a control program, tourism, and hunting.

Projections call for a 30 per cent decline in the number of polar bears worldwide over the next 35 to 50 years.

But Taylor said the conservation groups’ petition did not cite the new population inventory information.

Another study from the National Centre for Policy — a right-wing think tank in Washington D.C. — said “what seems clear is that polar bears have survived for thousands of years, including both colder and warmer periods. There may be threats to the future survival of the polar bear, but global warming is not primary among them.”

According to the World Wildlife Federation, about 20 distinct polar bear populations exist, accounting for approximately 22,000 polar bears worldwide.

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