Endangered Species: Polar Bear

Currently, the polar bear population worldwide is around twenty-two and thirty-one thousand according to the IUCN (International union for conservation and nature). There are nineteen distinct populations of which thirteen are in Canada, that means that around 60 and 80 percent are in Canada (around twenty-five thousand). The most affected populations of the arctic are those that are furthest from the center, that is, further south. This is because the southern Arctic is in contact with the water that is heating up due to the increase in global temperatures. Below is an image showing the map with the nineteen polar bear populations; the ones that are encountered in Canada are Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Foxe Basin, Gulf of Boothia, Kane Basin, Lancaster Sound, M’Clintock Channel, Northern Beaufort Sea, Norwegian Bay, Southern Beaufort Sea, Southern Hudson Bay, Viscount Melville Sound, and Western Hudson Bay. Polar bears in Ontario are primarily from the Southern Hudson Bay sub-population and are mostly found from James Bay to northern Ellesmere Island, and from Labrador to the Alaskan border. Churchill, Manitoba, on the western coast of Hudson Bay, is one of the three largest polar bear maternity denning areas in the world.

Knowing exactly the number of polar bears is difficult to obtain in the more remote parts of the Arctic, which means that much more is known about some polar bear populations than others, since the arctic is a place where is not habitable for humans, also they are a very solitary species, which means they live fall apart from one another. Another challenge faced when calculating their population, is the fact that they are as white as the snow which is their habitat. The bears that are more accessible and easier study ere those living closer to villages, airports, or any human habited area. The subpopulation that is less known is the Arctic Basin since is in the very north of the Arctic. So, answering how many polar bears there are is more a guess.

Polar bears have some capacity to adjust to the warming Arctic, but the loss of sea ice habitat may be happening too rapidly to allow for adaptation. Internationally, polar bears are considered vulnerable, in Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources lists polar bears as a species of “special concern” provincially under the Endangered Species Act. They are also listed as a species of “special concern” nationally by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Main Threats

The loss of sea ice habitat from climate change is the biggest threat to the survival of polar bears. Other key threats include polar bear-human conflicts because climate change forces the species to change their habits and spend more time offshore, which means they are closer to coastal communities, this means more encounters between humans and polar bears, these interactions normally are bad for both, human and bears. Another threat is unsustainable hunting, in Canada, polar bears are managed and protected, but there are places where unsustainable hunting happens, this includes illegal hunting. The oil and gas industries are increasingly starting to be more accessible in the Arctic and offshore operations are a great risk since route emissions and spills are going to be discharged into the sea or on the sea.

Some of the consequences polar bears may suffer from industries are that the contact with oil spills can reduce the insulating effect of the bears’ fur, polar bears can ingest oil through grooming and through eating contaminated prey, and if a major oil spill occurs at or near areas with high concentrations of polar bear denning sites, it could have population-wide consequences. Another threat that polar bears are currently facing is that they are exposed to pollutants through their food because their food chain contains high levels of chemicals, toxic for their organisms. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) suppress biological functions such as growth, reproduction, and their immune system. Furthermore, a low reproduction rate makes polar bears more vulnerable to a population decline than some other species.

Impacts

The rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions is causing the rise in global temperatures sufficiently to reducing polar bears habitat, if too much ice melts, polar bears may lose their ability to survive. Polar bears are dependent on sea ice to be able to capture their principal prey, ringed seals and other preys including bearded seals, harp seals, walrus, and beluga. All these species live at the ice edge, and polar bears get most of the energy they need for the year in spring and summer seasons, as ice is melting earlier and winter coming later, bears have less time to hunt for prey and have to go longer without eating. Declines in the quality and quantity of sea ice have reduced the available habitat for polar bears, besides, sea ice breakup is linked with declines in natality and body condition, resulting in decreased survival of subadult and senescent bears and a decline in subpopulation size. In addition, ice breakup was correlated with a diet shift, which has a suggested link to increased contaminant burdens. Human and polar bear conflicts in Western Hudson Bay have increased in part because of the longer ice-free season and increasing nutritional stress; bears need to adapt and to expand their food search field.

The Graph below, represents how important and how dependent are bears on their preys since they need their fats to be able to survive in such extreme weather conditions. Ringed seal represents the largest proportion of polar bear diets. Estimates for other prey species were less than half of that estimated for ringed seal (46.4 %) and were similarly lower among bearded seals (19.6%), seabirds (17%), and bowhead whales (15%), and were lower again for beluga whales (2%). Blue bars represent ice‐obligate prey and gray bars denote onshore food resources.

The graph below shows the relationship between climate warming and Arctic sea ice extent in the polar basin in September, shows an accelerating decline in sea ice cover between 1900 and 2100. The trend in the total area of sea ice loss measured from satellite records between 1979 and 2006 (red line) was greater than that projected by almost all the models, including the ensemble mean (black line). Future rates of sea ice decline are expected to accelerate since shows that sea ice is being lost more rapidly than the predicted.

Talk About The Food Chain

The consequences of changing sea ice conditions are different in different Arctic regions, and not all polar bear populations are going to respond in the same way. It is certain that the ice coverage in the arctic has been decreasing since 1979 faster than predicted due to the increase in global temperatures. In Western Hudson Bay, probably the most studied subpopulation, the ice coverage decreased at least fifty percent between 1979 and 2004. (CITA) Also, in this population, all bears have to fast for at least four months during the ice free season, while pregnant bears have to fast for eight months since they give birth at the moment that it is possible for the rest of the population to go hunting and get food again. As the average weight in pregnant and adult females is lower, fewer cubs survive and those that do are smaller. (MISMO ART) The entire population of polar bears in western Hudson Bay has been forced to change their habits progressively, to start fasting and also to fast for longer periods. Most polar bears can handle a single short season of ice without much trouble. However, as the number of short ice seasons increases, stress on polar bears will also increase. As bears become more stressed, and lose their conditions, the survival of cubs, subadults, and bears over twenty years of age decreases due to a decrease in the overall size of the western pole of the Hudson Bay bear population.

Another issue that polar bears are facing, is the effects of forest fires on polar bear maternity denning habitat in western Hudson Bay fire significantly altered vegetation composition, resulting in a decrease in the stability of den sites, the collapse of dens, and degradation of the surrounding habitat. Although bears do not use burned areas for decorating, reusing and occupying peat sites during the summer can be an important means of energy conservation for pregnant bears in West Hudson Bay. The increased energy costs are directly associated with the search times for suitable den sites and the excavation of new dens can affect, which can affect reproductive success. Predicted increases in forest fire activity as a result of climate change, coupled with long-term recovery of habitat for deforestation may reduce the amount of habitat for deforestation in the future. Resource managers must be aware of the possibility of a change in the distribution of bears and the further loss of maternity habitat in West Hudson Bay.

Social Implications

Due to the drastic changes that polar bears have undergone due to changes in temperature, attacks on people by polar bears and vice versa have increased. One reason is that bears are nutritionally stressed and in poor body conditions, another reason is that in many places the conservation of the species is not well emphasized. It is reasonable to establish that polar bears in poor body condition are a greater threat to people than those with healthier body conditions. Furthermore, as the availability of sea ice is changing dramatically and rapidly across the range, polar bears are influenced and instinctively change their behaviour, that leads them to expand their ranges which generates more interaction with humans. What happens in some cases is that as the bears approach the coasts and human habited areas, people have the need to feel safe and in extreme cases to defend themselves, but in other cases, people still hunt polar bears as a hobby for the economic reward they can obtain or because they practice hunting sports.

Polar bears are of great importance for Canada’s wildlife heritage, mostly for the Inuit and many northern communities. Approximately two percent (around three hundred) of the Canadian polar bear population enters international trade, and exports from Canada have not increased over the years. Polar bear trade does not come from a commercial harvest but from a subsistence harvest. Polar bear protection is shared with provinces, territories and regional wildlife management boards, this allows activities, investments and expertise to be managed across the country and ensures that each organization is meeting its responsibilities to conserve the species. This approach has been successful and means that Canada is meeting its obligations for to the Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears that was signed by Canada, Norway, Russia, Greenland and the United States.

Other actions taken by Canada to protect polar bears are regulating the import and export of live polar bears, polar bear hides and trophies, establishing protected areas for habitat important to polar bears through our national parks, national and marine wildlife areas, and provincial and territorial parks, and developing a National Polar Bear Conservation Strategy and involvement in the development of a Circumpolar Action Plan. Also, providing scientific advice and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge on harvest management to ensure that quotas allow for a sustainable harvest from polar bear populations. The inclusion of Traditional Knowledge helps to provide information on polar bear abundances, movements and behaviours, and provides long-term perspective on changes in the population. Canada is the only country that takes into account Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in the management and conservation of polar bears.

Nowadays the climatic problem is out of control, the ice in the arctic melts more every day, thereby reducing the number of polar bears on our planet very quickly. Polar bears are being directly affected; melting ice and the loss of their habitat mean that in many areas they are running out of food and either die or have to migrate to areas for which they are not prepared. In addition, it must be added that the oil industry is moving to the north, which means that its habitat is increasingly being destroyed.

Obviously, a global change is required at the government level, with environmental policies, the strict prohibition of their hunting and the prohibition to exploit the oil platforms that are in their natural habitat. At the global level, stopping climate change depends above all on the political will shown by the countries in converting the promises contained in the different agreements and efforts to protect the species. On the other hand, the action at the local level necessary to stop the extinction of the bears; The more people show interest in the problem, the more emphasis they will put on treating the problem, for example, through social and institutional awareness.

Unless we make appropriate changes now, the polar bear will not become part of the future. This information can be alarming because most people assume that being at the top of the food chain with no real predators except man, polar bears will continue to exist for many centuries into the future. Approximately 30% of its population is believed to have become extinct within the next 50 years. This means that there will be fewer polar bears for breeding. Because they only give birth about once every three to four years, putting in efforts to achieve safe reproduction is very important.

If polar bears are going to continue to be able to live in the Arctic region, then their natural habitat must be preserved. If the ice sheets continue to melt, this will lead to a very difficult lifestyle for these animals. They may be able to adapt to some changes, but many of them will feel stressed. The penalties for violating the hunting regulations and laws have to be very harsh. A fine is not enough, but even imprisonment should be valued as punishment.

There may be a bright future for polar bears. However, for this to happen, efforts must be put in place right now, and agreements between nations must be strengthened. By doing your part, you can make it possible for polar bears to continue walking on Earth, rather than going extinct. If our polar bears become totally extinct, the food chain will be altered, which can have a profound effect on humans.