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FILE PHOTO: The debate over the polar-bear population has been raging for years, frequently pitting scientists against Inuit. (Reuters)
FILE PHOTO: The debate over the polar-bear population has been raging for years, frequently pitting scientists against Inuit. (Reuters)

Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente: Polar bears don't need us to save them Add to ...

Polar bears are starving, and human beings are to blame. Global warming is melting the sea ice and cutting them off from their food supplies. Soon the only polar bears left will be in zoos. If you want to see them in the wild, you’d better hurry up, because by mid-century the polar bear population could decline by two-thirds.

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“It’s not fun to see a mother bear watch her cubs falling dead because she can no longer nurse them,” University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher told the CBC last week. He thinks desperate times call for desperate measures. One option would be to save the bears by feeding them ourselves. Other options might include shipping the bears farther north, or penning them up in a sort of temporary bear park, or even euthanizing them. “We want governments to be ready with conservation and management plans for polar bears when a worst-case climate change scenario happens,” he declared in a press release.

Here’s some news you won’t hear from Dr. Derocher. The polar-bear population is not declining. In fact, it’s much bigger than it was 40 years ago, when a global hunting ban was introduced. After dwindling to a few thousand, the number of polar bears has rebounded to 20,000 or 25,000 today.

“This is essentially a heartening fact, but nobody knows it,” says Zac Unger, a California writer who planned to write a book on the end of the polar bears. Instead, he wound up writing a book about the loss of scientific integrity. It’s called Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye.

To get his story, Mr. Unger (who describes himself as a classic Bay-area liberal) moved with his family to Churchill, Man., the polar bear capital of the world. Churchill’s bear population is around 1,000, which is roughly the same size as the human population. Because the town is relatively easy to get to, it’s a magnet for bear researchers, filmmakers and tourists. Most of the polar bears you see on TV are Churchill bears. They are so abundant that they stroll into town.

“I set out to write this mournful elegy for the polar bear, and then I got there and the bears were doing better than I’d thought – which was great news for the bears but terrible for my book,” Mr. Unger told me.

Instead of emaciated bears, what he found was a vigorous scientific debate between catastrophists and other scientists who are far more optimistic. But the public only hears one side. Mr. Unger found that the catastrophists have abandoned proper science for polemics – what he calls science by sound bite. “When you say that the polar bears are going to be dead by a certain date, you are making a political point, not a scientific one,” he says. “I don’t think they’re dishonest people, but any time they have a choice or an assumption to make, they choose the worst-case scenario.”

They also don’t take kindly to dissent. People who disagree with them are sometimes banned from their conferences, or labelled as “climate deniers.” Mr. Unger himself has been called a climate denier, which he’s not. He just thinks the story is more nuanced than a sound bite. There are 19 different bear populations in the world. Some are doing fine and some are not, and with some we just don’t know. Sea ice is only one of many factors that may influence the bears’ health.

Northerners are generally contemptuous of fly-in experts from the South. The polar bears they see are doing fine, not that anyone cares what they think. One experienced ranger – who has helped countless researchers prepare projects meant to prove the bears are doomed – told Mr. Unger: “I’m just starting to resent being told that I’m not seeing what I know abso-flipping-lutely damn well that I’m seeing with my own eyes.”

The other day I had a chat with Kelsey Eliasson, a polar bear guide who lives in Churchill and writes a blog about the bears. “I’ve done 14 bear seasons,” he told me. “There’ve been some good years and some really bad years. But nobody is seeing a constant decline.”

Mr. Eliasson is skeptical of doom-and-gloom scenarios based on computer models – on which scientists such as Dr. Derocher rely heavily. “There is a widespread belief in the North these days that researchers and NGOs have become more interested in media face-time than actual polar bear research,” he says. “They are super nice guys. I had incredible respect for them, but now I’m blogging against them. I just feel like they’re lost.”

Churchill’s bears are among the most poked, prodded and scrutinized creatures in the world. They are chased by helicopter or all-terrain vehicles, and drugged so that researchers can analyze their blood, their bodies and their teeth. An estimated 80 per cent of Churchill’s bears have encountered researchers – sometimes more than once. In Mr. Eliasson’s view, the best way we can help the bears is to stop harassing them. “Declare a five-year moratorium,” he says. “Leave them alone. Everyone around here would be in favour of that.”

Mr. Unger has another suggestion for polar bear researchers. Stop doing politics and get back to doing science, which is by its very nature complicated and uncertain. Of course, the headlines might die down. But the alternative is to risk being utterly discredited. And that would not be good for polar bears, scientists or anybody else.

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