The WWF Arctic Global Polar Bear specialist, Geoff York, is on a field trip in Churchill on the Hudson Bay, observing and blogging about polar bears. Below is the third blog from our ‘eyes and ears on the tundra’. Read more blogs by Geoff York.
By Geoff York
This year I had a unique opportunity while in town. PBI and Frontiers North Adventures premiered a new film by Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro. The documentary was filmed in Inuktitut with English subtitles and is called Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Some of you may recognize Zach from his last award winning project, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). This new work is a documentary recording Inuit elder perspectives on climate change across the Nunavut region of the Canadian high arctic. Along with the discussions on observed changes witnessed by elders and their concerns about the future, the film highlights some fairly direct and sometimes angry views around polar bears, conservation efforts, and the scientists who study this animal.
It’s a thorny issue in this part of the Arctic and one that deserves much more attention than I can provide in this short space. There is a lot of history as well, some related to past wildlife management issues, and some that goes much deeper. There is also a lot of distrust between north and south stemming from this long history and further complicating current discussions around wildlife management. At the end of the day however, one thing is clear from both the people of the north, scientists, and wildlife managers – we all want healthy populations of polar bear and other Arctic species for today and for future generations. It will take concerted efforts by all to bridge the current divide, but I am confident it will happen and we will find this shared ground.
There are 19 different subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic, and there will be up to 19 different stories unfolding as they try and cope with a rapidly changing environment. This complex story has been all too often oversimplified. Yes, the long-term outlook for polar bears and other ice-dependent species is fairly grim if climate warming continues at the current rate and we do nothing to reduce our green house gas emissions.
There will ultimately be far fewer bears in far fewer places, but the paths to that future will unfold differently across the polar bears range. The most southern ranges, like here in Hudson Bay, are already seeing population level impacts from receding sea ice and changes in the timing of melt and freeze up. However, mid to higher latitude populations, especially in the Canadian high arctic, may see stable to slightly improving conditions in the short term. For some populations, things may get a bit better, before they get worse.
What does this mean on the ground? In some places there is concern that local observations may be contradicting scientific research. Despite scientists saying that there are likely fewer polar bears in a certain region, local residents are actually seeing more bears. How can this be? Well, in some areas, people are seeing more bears because bears are being forced to spend more time closer to shore or onshore and are more likely to be seen, but that does not equate to a larger population size. In other areas, particularly in the high north, people are seeing more bears because there may actually be more bears – we just lack the data to confirm the current situation.
Adequate monitoring and census of polar bears is very expensive and resource intensive. With nearly two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, Canada, and specifically the provinces and territories with management authority, are hard pressed to keep up with the current status of the 13 management populations that cross their respective jurisdictions. The federal government, formerly with a staff of 6 devoted to polar bear research, now employs 2. Nunavut is saddled with the bulk of the work, but needs additional outside resources to successfully monitor its populations. Russia also remains a big question mark for most of its populations. Filling these gaps will take time, effort, and collaboration – clearly time will not be on our side.