Polar Passion: Dr. Steve Amstrup Dedicates Life to Saving the Polar Bear

Dan Kloeffler and David Miller

Dr. Steve Amstrup spends much of his career dodging frostbite and following one of the world’s most powerful land predators. For him, it’s a childhood dream come true.

“I am one of the few people in life who ended up doing what they wanted to do since they were little.”

For more than 30 years, Amstrup has been covering the Arctic tundra, following every move of the polar bear. Now that he’s chief scientist for Polar Bears International, Amstrup’s office is the deep freeze barrens of northern Arctic countries where polar bears thrive. Since he was four-years-old, Amstrup has been captivated by bears, knowing from a young age that he wanted to work with these animals in some capacity. And now that he’s ‘on top of the world,’ or at least geographically closer than most of us will ever get, he’s using his position to call attention to the plight of the polar bear.

Amstrup focuses his attention on the population changes of the world’s polar bears. Specifically, he’s looking at how the changing environment is having an impact on their numbers. What makes his job difficult is that there is not a significant amount of historical data on polar bears. Amstrup and his fellow researchers are working with relatively recent population numbers based on the world’s 19 subpopulations. Still, with the information they have, Amstrup and his colleagues have noted that eight subpopulations have shown a decrease in 2009, compared to two subpopulations with a decrease in 2001.

It was Amstrup’s work that helped get the polar bear listed as a threatened species in the United States. He notes that as Arctic temperatures warm, the hunting season for polar bears is decreased. The solution, as he and other researchers see it, is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to global warming.

Since the polar bear was listed in 2008, Amstrup has been splitting his time between studying the animal and educating the public and policymakers about the bear’s future. His dedication has earned him the prestigious Indianapolis Prize (http://www.indianapolisprize.org), an annual recognition for an individual that has made extraordinary efforts in the conservation of a species.

But award and recognition as one of the world’s leading polar bear experts aside, Amstrup is focused on public education and policy change that he hopes will preserve his life’s passion.

“We (researchers) all feel pressure to do something to save the polar bear. We are making sure that what we do is right.”

ABC News' Arthur Niemynski and Maurice Abbate contributed to this episode.