Inside the Plight of the Polar Bears

Ron Claiborne
ABC News BlogsNovember 21, 2011

Dateline: Churchill, Manitoba (Canada)

For more than half-an hour, we drove along a snow-packed road through a scene of arctic desolation. All round us there was nothing but sprawling fields of white for as far as you could see, with a smattering of spindly willows protruding through the snow to disturb the bleak tableau.

Finally, we pulled up to an assembly of platforms linked to each other like a chain. Attached to each platform, like airplanes at an airport’s gate, were several enormous vehicles. As our bus stopped next to a staircase that led up to one of the platforms, our veteran polar bear guide, Haley Shepard, told us to hurry up the stairs because, you never know, a polar bear might be lurking nearby unseen. And she did not have to say what we had already learned: If you happen to come face to face with a polar bear, well, good luck!

The platform led to the entrance to one of the vehicles, a Tundra Buggy, a converted school bus that sits high on enormous snow tires. The Tundra Buggy would be our mobile observation post as we headed into polar country on the western shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay. This area, about 1,000 miles north of the US-Canada border along the 49th parallel, is where hundreds of polar bears gather each fall to wait for the bay to freeze over. Once that happens, they can head out onto the ice to hunt ring seals.

“Hudson Bay is fairly unique for polar bears in that the entire sub-population (about 900 bears) comes on shore during that time. They’re in what’s called walking hibernation. They’re basically just napping on shore,” says Geoff York, head of Arctic Species Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. “There’s very little food for them to eat. As it’s getting colder, the bears are actually waking up and heading out onto the sea ice to eat.

But, this year, as last year, the ice is weeks late forming. The bears, who haven’t eaten since July, have been arriving when they usually do — early November — but there was very little ice on Hudson Bay.

“We’re late getting them to their meal this year, and they were early getting off (the ice this summer),” York explains. “Their meal window is shrinking on both ends.”

As we drove across the tundra, we saw dozens of bears — mostly alone or in pairs — wandering along the shore. We watched as a mother and her male cub wandered from east to west in no particular hurry. Several times, it seemed as if the mothers were probing the on-shore ice to see if it was sufficiently thick. Out on the bay, the ice was just beginning to take shape close to shore. The bay needs to be essentially frozen over before the bears can go onto it. Last year, that did not happen until the first week of December.

York and many other scientists say global warming in the Arctic is to blame. Some experts say the northern latitudes have warmed by 5 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years, with the warming accelerating in recent decades due to increased accumulation of man-made greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

For the polar bears, less time to eat means a greater risk of not surviving the ever-lengthening time when they are on shore and not eating.

“Polar bears are definitely threatened, and they’re threatened by habitat loss driven by climate change,” York says.

Another byproduct of the late ice formation is wayward, impatient bears wandering into Churchill, a town of about 800 right in the middle of  the region where the polar bears congregate. Sometimes a famished bear will be drawn to town by the aroma of human food or garbage. This autumn, more bears have ambled into town than anyone can remember ever happening before.

“If they don’t have the ice, they’re food deprived, and they’re roaming around on shore waiting for the ice. And the longer it takes for the ice (to form), the hungrier they get and that brings them closer to population centers,” said Steve Armstrup, chief scientists for Polar Bears International.

Churchill has a polar-bear warning system, and guards who fire firecrackers to scare them away if they’re spotted in town. Sometimes they have to “arrest” an errant bear, tranquilize it and place it in a holding facility  known locally as “bear jail.”

There, bears are detained for up to 30 days, with the idea that creating a mildly unpleasant association with their having ventured into town. Eventually, they’re ready to be released. They’re again tranquilized, placed in a net and then airlifted by helicopter and returned to the wild. We watched as a young 400-pounder was gently carried aloft and taken 40 miles north of Churchill.  There, he was rolled onto his stomach so he’d be more comfortable when he awoke. After a few minutes, the bear opened his eyes and groggily moved his head as our group stood a few feet away, us watching him watching us. A ranger straddled the inert bear and sprayed painted green dye on his back. This way, if the bear returns to town again, he will be easily identified as a repeat offender.

“The idea is to bring the bears up here, let them go and hope they’ll go out on the sea ice and find enough food and not come back to Churchill,” Armstrup said,

The sad reality is that the prognosis for the world’s 2o,000 to 25,000 polar bears is not favorable. As the ice retreats and forms later all around the Arctic, their habitat is shrinking. It has been estimated that by 2080, Hudson Bay may not freeze anymore. That would be mean the end of the habitat for this sub-population.

The World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups are focusing their energies on a project known as the “Last Ice Area.” These are the areas of the Arctic that scientific projections indicate remain frozen longer even as the planet warms. They are working to get these areas, which include Canada, Greenland and Russia, protected as a kind of final refuge for these magnificent creatures. Among the major donor to the project is the Coca-Cola company which has kicked in $2 million and agreed to match the next $1 million in contributions. Coke has long been linked to polar bears through its well-known ads featuring cartoon polar bears.

On our last day on the tundra, the weather turned bitterly cold, well below zero with a whipping, numbing wind  (though York said it was still “balmy” to the bears). In just 24 hours, there was more ice visible along the edge of Hudson Bay and the forecast was for the temperature to remain below zero degrees Fahrenheit for at least the next week. Extreme discomfort for us, but a blessing for the bears. As we watched the polar bears amble along the coast, it almost seemed like they could sense that soon, finally, they will be able to eat.