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polar bear habitat

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Polar Bears: A Wild Study

A polar bear mother with her yearling cubs strolls in the wilds of Manitoba, Canada.

It’s hard for me to believe that this year is my 12th in Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, for polar bear season. Because of the unique water currents, geography, and ice formation, polar bears pass through this northern town every year on their way to hunting ringed seals after a few months of fasting when Hudson Bay is ice-free. The majority of time, visitors spend the days observing polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area beginning 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) from town. But today we are moving out to Wapusk National Park and Cape Churchill, another 15.5 miles away. Tundra Buggy Adventures is granted permits exclusively by Parks Canada to travel into this remote tundra habitat.

This travel requires hitching up all the Tundra Buggy lodge trailers to individual buggies and hauling them through tidal flats, snow drifts, and around large boulders. It’s a slow process, but along the way great views of the tundra and polar bear habitat can be seen. We are now just two hours into the drive and have already seen a fabulous gyrfalcon, fox prints, and polar bears: several subadult bears, one particularly large male, and a mom with two yearling cubs. I was extremely happy to see yearling cubs, as over the past three years I had not seen any older cubs, just cubs of the year, aka COY. Not seeing older cubs was unusual and perhaps indicates that cubs are not surviving past their first year.

Tundra buggies make their way to Wapusk National Park.

This year we are also seeing the ice forming a bit earlier than it has in the last few years. We have seen many bears already head out to begin hunting. Over the past decade, this would be a normal occurrence, but in the last few years the ice has not been formed enough for bears to get out and hunt for the winter until December. It is also good news, since most of the polar bears in Hudson Bay lost their hunting ice in July. Scientists studying this population estimate that the ice is disappearing a full three weeks earlier than normal for this region. The aerial survey from last year to evaluate the population of the Western Hudson Bay resulted in an estimated 1,000 polar bears, consistent with surveys from a few years ago. Unfortunately, average litter sizes were the lowest recorded, and yearlings and COY were proportionately fewer. This is possibly due to not only the earlier ice loss but also the later ice formation giving females less time to hunt and to provide for offspring.

Our destination tonight will be Cape Churchill, which has a great history of polar bear observation for both scientist and bear enthusiast. Typically this is where the biggest males stay, biding their time sparring while waiting for the ice. This area, too, is where, once the males have moved on, moms with cubs make their last walk to the coast and out to the ice. The opportunities to study polar bears and their behavior are hard to match anywhere else in the world.

We should reach the Cape in another eight hours. It will have been a very long day of travel. The reward will be tomorrow when we wake up in perhaps one of the most inspiring lands of ice and bears. I think how unbelievably blessed I have been for 12 seasons to be able to be a part of this. I can’t bear to think that this may all be disappearing quickly. The colleagues I travel with inspire me with knowledge that we can make a difference, the guests sharing this adventure inspire me with knowing there are some really great folks who are willing to make changes in their lives now to save this area by lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, and most importantly, I am inspired by the incredible polar bears that survive and thrive in this ice world.

I am so happy to see a mom and her two yearling cubs. It is their future that we hold in our hands, as well as the future of our own children, so that they, too, may be blessed to witness this amazing animal in this inspiring world of ice.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Quiet Season.

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An Olympic Spotlight for Polar Bears

Last night, while watching snow boarders, ice skaters, and skiers hurtle themselves down and across frozen surfaces, I was excited to see the spotlight shared with the most amazing of “winter Olympians,” the polar bear. The piece focused on the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, and scientists supported by Polar Bears International (PBI) who study them.

PBI has been the San Diego Zoo’s partner in polar bear conservation since our program began six years ago (see post Zoos and Polar Bear Conservation Research). It has been instrumental in providing resources for our research, as well as connecting our researchers to polar bear habitat and the scientists studying polar bears in their Arctic home. Since our relationship with PBI began, we’ve seen the crisis in polar bear habitat intensify, as climate change-driven sea ice losses have accelerated, and the behavioral and physiological impacts of these losses have taken their toll on the bears. The alliance between PBI and the Zoo has facilitated our ability to keep pace with the conservation crisis in the Arctic and helps us stay on the front lines of conservation research that is tailored to the zoo environment.

PBI hosted the film crew, took them out on the Tundra Buggy tour, and met with our collaborating scientists who also work hand-in-hand with PBI. Buggy 1 is the mobile lab from which scientists can observe the bears and broadcast their observations to classrooms all over North America. This outreach enables kids who may never see snow get face to face with polar bears and the Arctic! This experience is, no doubt, impactful and helps kids understand why we need to save polar bears and what we need to do to accomplish this.

Please visit PBI’s Web site to see the polar bears of Churchill in action!

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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The Polar Bears of Churchill

One of my first wild polar bears here at Churchill. Thin at this time of year, waiting for the ice to re-freeze so they can hunt, they are still large and powerful predators.

One of my first wild polar bears here at Churchill. Thin at this time of year, waiting for the ice to re-freeze so they can hunt, they are still large and powerful predators.

I saw a bear. Okay, I saw six. And it only took a couple of hours. I’ve been working with bears for many years now, and this is not what I’m used to. I’ve worked most extensively with giant pandas, and it took me years to see a panda in the wild. Recently, I started working with Andean (or spectacled) bears and, with a lot of sweat and hard work (and the help of an experienced collaborator), managed to see ONE in Peru (see post The Bear Goes Over the Mountain). But here, polar bears are everywhere! For now.

I’m in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, known as the polar bear capital of the world. I’m here as a guest of my friends and collaborators (and supporters!) at Polar Bears International. This is a terrific organization, and they have given me a terrific opportunity. More on that later. The bears are beautiful! I can’t wait to share more about the bears in my next posts.

Nothing to do, a polar bear might as well sleep. Occasionally, they may eat some berries or even some kelp, but the best strategy is just to conserve energy until the ice returns.

Nothing to do, a polar bear might as well sleep. Occasionally, they may eat some berries or even some kelp, but the best strategy is just to conserve energy until the ice returns.

The polar bears will be leaving soon. If we don’t get our act together, they may be gone from the polar bear capital forever. The bears are here, congregating, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze. Once it does, the bears will be on the ice, where they belong, where they hunt and breed. Polar bear habitat is sea-ice, pure and simple. If they don’t have sea-ice, they will likely go extinct. And the ice is melting, fast. Why? I think we all know by now. Because we are burning fossil fuels like it’s going out of style and, in so doing, we are emitting tons, billions of tons, of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon and other greenhouse gases are warming up the planet.

I won’t explain the science, I think most of us know this by now. The sea-ice is shrinking, shrinking faster than even the most pessimistic models of five years ago. In 2007, we all were shocked when we lost a million square miles of sea-ice: that’s Alaska, Texas, and Washington combined. This year is fortunate—the Arctic is getting a little break from the warmer temperatures. But the trend is unmistakable: the Arctic is getting warmer, and it is losing its ice.

View from the Tundra Buggy. Where else could this happen? At Churchill at this time of year, this may be the highest density of polar bears anywhere. This is where they come to wait for the ice… and check out the tourists and researchers!

View from the Tundra Buggy. At Churchill at this time of year, this may be the highest density of polar bears anywhere. This is where they come to wait for the ice… and check out the tourists and researchers!

Polar bears need the ice. It’s the only way they can get to their prey. Polar bears wait at breathing holes at the edge of the ice and catch unsuspecting seals. So, the polar bears of Churchill are waiting, waiting for the ice to refreeze. Summer here is no picnic. Each day that passes a polar bear loses about two pounds (almost 1 kilogram). That would be a great diet plan for many of us, but for polar bears that means they have fewer resources to survive and reproduce. Today’s polar bears are skinnier. They have fewer cubs. Many of the cubs don’t survive. The old and the young are dying at higher rates, particularly in years with less ice. Especially here in Churchill, at the southern end of their range. Here, the ice is breaking up earlier. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen the breakup occur 3 weeks earlier. For a polar bear, that’s three more weeks without access to food. And it’s reforming later, which means a longer period of starvation at the end of summer, too.

It seems clear to me: we must do something about climate change. Not just for the polar bears. Giant pandas, too, may lose habitat to climate change. I recently visited another spectacular site for Andean bears, in the dry forest. If climate change brings even drier climates, the water holes will dry up and the bears will be gone. And, in Southern California, kangaroo rats (see post Roo Rats Released), the desert bighorn, and the desert tortoises (see post Tortoises on TV) of the Mojave desert are all predicted to suffer from the hotter, drier climate forecast for our region. All these species and their ecosystems, and many more, are being altered by climate change, and the effects will not be good.

That’s why I’m here, working with Polar Bears International. We are here to see these bears and bring this message into your homes and schools around the world. Climate change is real, we are the primary cause, and we can and must do something about it. If we don’t, we will live in a very different world, and it may be a world without polar bears. Is that what we want?

Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

Watch the Zoo’s polar bears daily on Polar Cam.

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Polar Bears, Politics, and Petroleum

Kalluk takes the plunge.

Kalluk takes the plunge.

In May of 2008, the polar bear was classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This historic listing was heralded as a timely and necessary protection for this magnificent animal. But as climate change was identified as the primary threat to the persistence of the polar bear, the legislation clearly eliminated any possibility of using the listing to initiate or enforce regulations that would curb greenhouse gas emissions. For those of us involved in polar bear conservation, we were left scratching our heads. How was this listing any more than window dressing if there was no way for it to drive the changes that would promote polar bear conservation?

On October 22, 2009, things changed. The federal government issued a statement proposing the designation of over 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of coastal land on Alaska’s North Slope as “critical habitat” for the polar bear. This coastal habitat is essential to the polar bear, as it is where the majority of maternity dens are found in Alaska. Its designation as critical habitat would dramatically limit any and all human activity within its boundaries.

By most accounts, this area in the high Arctic is far away, very cold, and as remote as you can imagine. As inhospitable as this region may sound, it happens to be where some of the biggest reserves of petroleum in the world are found. Petroleum extraction activities have been ongoing in this region for decades. However, the impact of this industry on polar bears is not clear, and as more activity has been proposed on the coast and offshore, it has become obvious that we need to find out more about how these activities affect denning bears. Clearly there is a lot at stake for industry if this proposed rule is established.

I frequently tell my children that one of the best things about our government is that it invites people to find out what’s going on and offers many outlets for us to let our voices be heard and be part of the legislative process. Regardless of what your opinion is, you can go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Web site, Marine Mammals Management page and download the proposed rule and all of the great maps and resources available to all. The information provided on the Web site is the same set of resources available to the legislators that will be voting on this designation. There is even an invitation to the public to send in their opinion on the designation. So, go ahead! Get informed! Get involved!

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: What Little We Know.