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Why do we do it?

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By Geoff York

The weather holds and even improves as we head into the last week of the project. Clear skies and sun, though the winds are forecast to pick up during the day. We’ll launch in the late morning as we’ve noticed over the years that the bears seem less active earlier in the day. Tracks and bears are also both easier to spot in the low angle light of the evening hours.

Within an hour of leaving the base, we cross the tracks of a family group and are soon safely on the ice with a sow and two yearlings. The winds are much stronger on the ice, blowing a steady 20 knots. Although the temperature is moderate (well – relatively speaking), the wind and blowing snow make for challenging work conditions.

Much of the sampling we do requires us to kneel on the ice and often take our gloves off to manipulate equipment or samples. Today, there is blasting snow up to about half a metre from the ice surface. Anything that is open (gear bags and tagging boxes) begin to immediately fill with snow. Exposed fingers become wet with snow and chill quickly. Gear, paperwork, and people are covered and our progress is slowed. When you stand up, it’s actually pretty nice out, but our work is on the ground.

As described this past week and throughout these entries, the capture and handling of polar bears is logistically challenging, stressful to crew and animal alike, and poses some risk to all involved. For people, the work involves successively long days of physical work in sometimes very cold conditions. The Arctic itself, both due to the remoteness and weather, is a very unforgiving place to work. Mistakes or poor judgment can quickly lead to serious trouble, and you are a long way from any help. Since 1990, four biologists and one pilot have died trying to better understand these amazing animals. A sobering statistic, given the small number of scientists who conduct field research on polar bears across the Arctic.

Capturing polar bears is clearly stressful for them as well, and not without some risk. The greatest danger for bears during capture is water and possible drowning. Managing this requires constant vigilance from the capture crew as the sea ice is constantly changing. Research-related mortalities are fortunately very uncommon.

The capture event itself, and to a lesser degree the sample collection and handling, places extra demands on the animals. Given the wounds we see from bear/bear interaction, the tagging, tattooing, blood, and tooth collection are comparatively minor. That said, all possible care is taken to minimize stress and reduce the invasiveness of sample collection during all procedures.

So why do we do it?

For me, it’s the love of the animals and the place they represent (both symbolically and ecologically) – the Arctic. For all involved in polar bear research, it is the desire to better understand and conserve these truly unique bears. Governments are bound to manage polar bears through national laws and international treaties. Mangers need sound scientific information to meet the goals of these laws and treaties. Indigenous people across the Arctic still rely on polar bears for food, fur, and cultural/spiritual uses. Setting sustainable quotas is critical to protecting this usage today and for generations to come.

Almost everything we know about polar bears comes from long term research programs. Without capturing, handling, and applying tracking devices to polar bears, we would not know where they roam, or anything about trends in their health or condition. We would know nothing about their genetics or population boundaries, we’d have no idea how they used the sea ice or where they denned (it was only through collaring in Alaska that we learned some bears den on the sea ice, or at least used to). Without data on condition, reproduction, and movements, we would have little to say about the impacts of changes in sea ice to polar bears. We’d also have less to say about the potential risks offshore industrial activities pose. Lastly, we would have no idea how many bears are in certain populations, or absent that, population trends in specific regions. Without trends or numbers, biologists would be hamstrung to sustainably manage harvest and other potential disturbances.

The traditional knowledge of polar bears from Indigenous people is another important part of the information puzzle needed to understand and manage this species. People who live in the Arctic year round and travel the landscape have unique and valuable perspectives on animal behavior, and local habitat use. Like all observational data however, this information is limited in space and time. Polar bears still spend the majority of their days and nights beyond the areas where people travel, and we rely on technology to help fill in those information gaps.

Observational data is important and can give us a coarse idea of animal condition, but it is no substitute for hands-on weights, measures, and analytical sampling. Imagine a doctor trying to assess your health without careful data, or a coworker using your habits at work to define what you do when you are not at the office. The same is true for wildlife where we need a combination of techniques, and both local and scientific information to come up with the best diagnosis.

WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.

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