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Polar Bears: Healthy or Threatened?

Since polar bears are important to Churchill’s economy, it is important to keep abreast of the controversy over their protection.

  • Article Summaries:
    • 24 November 2008: “Polar bears may thin out, but not Churchill tourism”
    • 15 January 2009: “Federal summit on bears invites polar opposites”
    • 16 January 2009: “Polar bear summit allows media in, but not Churchill”
    • 17 January 2009: “Polar bear summit pays respect to Inuit knowledge”
    • 17 February 2009: “Meeting with bear nearly deadly: Overall sightings down at Churchill”
    • 13 June 2009: "Big Chill in Churchill: Winter grips 90 percent of north, migratory birds can't breed"
    • 19 August 2009: "Fluke cold summer helps polar bears: Species still threatened: experts"


24 November 2008: “Polar bears may thin out, but not Churchill tourism” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

This news item is somewhat reassuring because a three-year study by Jackie Dawson, PhD student from the University of Waterloo and University of Calgary student Emma Stewart indicated that tourists would continue to visit Churchill, the “self-proclaimed polar bear capital,” even if there were fewer polar bears because of climate change. Through a survey of over 400 visitors, Dawson and Stewart determined that 82% would still have come to Churchill, even if there were fewer bears to see. However, 72% said they would go elsewhere if there were none.

Dawson was quoted, saying, “All the scientific projections are saying there’s going to be fewer bears and less healthy bears in Churchill in the future, but tourists still want to come and see them.” However, 69% of the tourists believed air travel contributed to climate change, an “ironic paradox,” in Dawson’s view, because they were “travelling from all over the world to view one of the most vulnerable species to climate change, but in doing so are contributing to the cycling impacts of climate change.”

Discussion: At the outset, Dawson’s comments on “climate change” need to be challenged. Indeed, “Climate change” is really a meaningless term because climate goes through cycles all the time. It is always changing. In the context of this article, however, it is a euphemism for “global warming” a term that was used extensively in climate circles a few years ago, but has fallen out of favour due to the fact that global warming, as defined by alarmists, hasn’t occurred since about 1998. If readers are surprised by this claim, check our Global Warming Sceptics pages where you'll find links to New Zealand’s Common Sense about Climate Change, The Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, and the Website of Anthony Watt, among others.

Dawson discovered that people may believe that carbon dioxide is contributing to alarming global warming, but if it means reducing their “carbon footprint” by avoiding the use of gas-guzzling air planes, they won’t do it. What are the implications of this information?

Students would be wise to follow the example of Kristen Byrnes and do their own research on global warming. It might reassure them about the health and vitality of polar bears not just at Churchill, but throughout the North.

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15 January 2009: “Federal summit on bears invites polar opposites” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

Lindsey Wiebe wrote an article on a conference that was held on January 16 in Winnipeg about the future of polar bears. It included government officials, researchers, and Inuit representatives, but interestingly, it was to be held “behind closed doors, with media barred from attending and the official list of speakers under wraps.” In fact, Environment Canada hadn’t even released an agenda for the meeting. Jim Prentice said the conference would work out “protection plans” for the polar bear, which numbered between 12,000 and 15,000 in Canada, according to the World Conservation Union.[1] Peter Ewins, the Canadian director of species conservation for the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), also claimed that eight of Canada’s thirteen bear populations were “either declining, depleted, or showing all the ecological signs of stress.”[2] This view was contradicted by Nunavut representatives who maintain that bear populations were healthy. In Wiebe’s view, “fur could fly” at the meeting as these two opposite viewpoints crashed head on.

Biologist Mitch Taylor, who argued that “polar bears can adapt to environmental changes,” was not invited, but he was in the city on January 15 to lecture at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, evidently presenting a viewpoint at odds with alarmism.[3] He had co-authored the 2008 Report of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which recommended a “species of special concern” status for polar bears, which Wiebe said had been “criticized by Canadian scientists for not going far enough.”[4]

Wiebe did not include any information on the criteria for the selection of representatives to the meeting. However, speakers included “COSEWIC chair Jeff Hutchings, Harry Flaherty of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Gabriel Nirlungayuk of Inuit land claims group Nunavut Tunngavik, and Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers,” which suggested that some consideration was given to opposing views. Andrew Derocher, chair of the polar bear specialist group run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, was present, but only as an invited guest, which presumably meant that he couldn’t say anything there. Wiebe didn’t say. Derocher noted that there was room for “cautious optimism” because the Minister of the Environment for Canada was sitting down with other provincial ministers to discuss a single species. However, he added that “the long-term solution for polar bears is really dealing with climate change, and that’s not going to be on the agenda for Friday’s meeting.” That Wiebe concluded her article with this quotation is worthy of note.

Discussion: One positive aspect of this conference was the inclusion of Northern and Inuit spokespersons. What happens when people are denied a voice? Have decisions in Ottawa often been made without Northern Input? This is a question you might discuss locally.

What did you learn from Wiebe’s article? What was missing?

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16 January 2009: “Polar bear summit allows media in, but not Churchill” [Winnipeg Free Press, B2]

Gabrielle Giroday highlighted the absence of representation from Churchill at the summit held January 16 in Winnipeg on the future of the polar bear. That absence was not through want of trying. Mayor Mike Spence had asked Environment Canada about attending, but he received no response. He was quoted as saying, “I think they’re sending the wrong message by not including us…The biologists indicate the numbers are down, but we don’t see it, in all fairness.”

Giroday added that there was no consensus on the issues of bear populations, which “some scientists” claimed were in “decline,” while “some Inuit groups” argued that they remained “at healthy levels for harvesting.”

Possibly because of outside pressure, Environment Canada opened the door a little to journalists by allowing them to attend the opening and closing remarks at the conference, and to certain panels, but still didn’t give them a list of who was to speak. That list was “still being finalized” the day before the event! About 30 delegates were in attendance.

Spence felt that Churchill should have been represented there, because it had “important information on polar bear populations” and it was also “a model” of co-existence from which other communities could learn.

Giroday went on to say that Churchill was “internationally renowned for conservation efforts related to the approximately 935 bears in the western Hudson Bay area, according to 2004 figures from the World Conservation Union.” She also quoted Mitchell Taylor, a polar bear biologist from Lakehead University, who was not invited and who had serious questions about whether all Canada’s polar bear populations were deceasing because of climate change. Like Wiebe, Giroday used a quotation to end her article.

“The climate’s not constant, it’s always changing. We need to be mindful of that,” Taylor said, “It appears most of our populations, at least at this time, are still abundant and productive and they’re not dying out.”

Discussion: It might be worth considering the way in which Wiebe and Giroday approached the subject of the conference. The last quotations are particularly informative about the perspective each took.

Why was Churchill excluded, considering that it is located in the province where the conference was being held and is also considered the international centre among tourists for the bear watch?

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17 January 2009: “Polar bear summit pays respect to Inuit knowledge” [Winnipeg Free Press, A10]

Lindsey Wiebe noted that the conference had “lent a stronger voice to the Inuit, but fell short of the climate-change action scientists hoped for.” She quoted Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice as saying that “there’d been a failure on the part of science” to fully recognize Inuit traditional knowledge. She then went on to say that northern residents were at odds with scientists who said that polar bears were threatened by “past overhunting, industrial activity and sea-ice loss prompted by climate change.” Gabriel Nirlungayuk, wildlife director at Nunavfut Tunngavik, maintained that bear populations were “stable” and that it wasn’t “constructive to exaggerate the situation.”

Wiebe then cited the opposing viewpoint, “a series of U.S. government studies” that found polar bear populations “could drop by two-thirds by 2050” and a smaller prediction by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). She added that the guests felt the conference was constructive, even though “some scientists had hoped the gathering would generate stronger action on climate change, which they say is the greatest threat to polar bears.” She again concluded her article with a quotation, this time from Jim Prentice, the Canadian Environment Minister, who said, “There are no single measures that Canada acting alone can undertake relative to climate change that are going to change the circumstances, on the ice, for polar bears in the immediate future.”

Discussion: Wiebe made no clear reference to the results of this conference. Did it achieve anything beyond being “constructive?” Considering that key people were excluded from the discussion for no stated reason, could it?

Inuit representatives were heard, and Wiebe did quote Nirlungayuk, but by immediately adding the dissenting scientific opinion, did she undercut what he had to say? By calling Inuit observation “traditional knowledge,” rather than the conclusions of present-day hunters who are actually out there on the ice hunting, how did Prentice unintentionally undercut the importance of Inuit observers?

Neither Wiebe nor Giroday talked about the economic impact of the American ban on polar bear trophy hunting, but read “Nunavut hunting outfitters struggle from U.S. ban on polar bear trophies,” 16 Dec. 2008, as well as the posted commentary about the article.

The money earned from controlled trophy hunting of polar bears helps fund conservation projects by the Nunavut government. How might the inclusion of this information in the articles on the conference have affected the reader’s perspective?

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17 February 2009: “Meeting with bear nearly deadly: Overall sightings down at Churchill” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

According to reporter, Lindsey Wiebe, encounters with bears are rare at Churchill, but that’s small comfort to Rene Preteau, who survived “a rare attack by an irate mother bear with two cubs in tow.” Preteau was doing repairs on windows in the fall of 2008 at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre about 23 km. east of town, “when a mother polar bear and two cubs rounded the corner unexpectedly.” She started to make hissing sounds and pawing the ground; then she attacked Preteau as he “wedged himself against the protruding bars he was mending on the windows.” She hit him in the face. He yelled and tried to hit back at her vulnerable nose, before running to the next window. The bear followed and attacked him a second time, ripping his jacket in the process. On her third attack, she grabbed him by the leg and dragged him to the ground. He thought he was a goner, but one of her cubs started to whimper, and she was momentarily diverted. He got up and made a mad dash for the fire exit door, which he had left unlocked, and made it inside just in time.

Preteau had been caught unaware. Because he was close to the station, he didn’t think to take a weapon with him, and the bear season was supposed to be two months away. Attacks like this are rare, the last one occurring in 2004, but in 2008 there were two incidents where polar bears attempted to enter buildings.

According to Manitoba Conservation, bear sightings at Churchill dropped from 250 in 2007 to 170 in 2008, a decline that is “hard to pinpoint exactly” because “the overall number of bear reports goes up and down.” Shaun Bobier, Manitoba Conservation’s regional supervisor, noted that “the number depends in part on where along the coast the bears first set foot on dry land, after a winter of seal hunting on the ice,” adding that “because of where the ice broke up last year, fewer bears came ashore close to Churchill.”

Discussion: Rene Preteau’s experience is a grim reminder that polar bears are not cuddly teddies; they are dangerous wild animals. Tourists need to take note, when they approach an apparently benign animal with their cameras.

Polar bear “decline” has been used as a sign of global warming and impending doom for the North. What alternative explanation was offered by Shaun Bobier?

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13 June 2009: “Big Chill in Churchill: Winter grips 90 percent of north, migratory birds can’t breed” [Winnipeg Free Press, A18]

It was cold in Northern Canada this year, and spring “record-late in the eastern Arctic with virtually 100 percent snow cover from James Bay north as of June 11.” According to wildlife biologist Robert Alison, “May temperatures in Northern Manitoba were almost four degrees C below the long-term average of -0.7, and in early June, temperatures averaged three degrees below normal. In fact, Pat Penwarden, a long time Churchill resident, said it was the coldest spring since the 1950s.

With “six-foot snowdrifts” blocking the roads around Churchill, and ninety percent of the local forests covered with snow up to three and four feet in places, it was a bad year for ecotourism as people “in droves” cancelled plans to come north to see migratory birds and other wildlife. The situation was so dire that many species of birds were not expected to nest. That’s what happened after the late spring of 1983, when “there was a total reproductive ‘bust’ in lesser snow geese” and the percentage of young birds among migrating geese that fall dropped from 50 to 0.005 percent in the eastern Arctic.

On June 7 [2009] Canada geese were just starting to nest, a month behind other years, so it was doubtful that they could produce young capable of flying south in the fall. “According to Robert Rockwell of The City University of New York, who studies geese in northern Manitoba, if the geese have not begun incubating clutches of eggs before June 11, there is almost no chance that their offspring will be strong enough to endure the long southbound fall flight.” That’s what happened in 1983, and 2009 is colder.

Alison quoted a number of wildlife scientists, all of whom made grim predictions about reproductive rates. Occasionally, as in 2004, a late spring discouraged nesting altogether, and birds migrated two months early.

Alison still affirmed that the Arctic was warming, and that “according to NOAA scientists…more frequent annual oscillations in temperature are likely to occur, often resulting in late springs.” It’s all a part of “a bumpy ride toward global warming,” according to Thomas Karl of the National Climate Center, who added that “this will be the shape of things to come.”

Alison ended his article as follows. “’People often confuse climate with weather, and this spring is a weather phenomenon,” said an Environment Canada spokesperson.”

Discussion: How is this article relevant to the issue of polar bear survival? Prevailing opinion suggests that polar bears won’t do well in a warming north (although they survived the Medieval Warm Period), so shouldn’t they be prospering this year? Based on computer-generated climate models, proponents of global warming alarmism have claimed that the north would continue to warm. It has only been recently, when the evidence of a cooling north has begun to emerge, that they have put forward the argument that it’s going to get colder in places before it gets warmer. Is this position based on science? Check our website “Global Warming Sceptics” for alternative explanations. Hint: Check out the relationship between sunspots and climate now and in the historical past. Become familiar in particular with the scientific research of the Danish scientist, Henrik Svenmark. It is well described in “The Cloud Mystery,” a 2008 documentary film. For a 2009 update on Svenmark’s research, go to “A link between the Sun, cosmic rays…”. Food for thought? A respite from the doom and gloom of global warming? You be the judge!

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19 August 2009: “Fluke cold summer helps polar bears: Species still threatened: experts” [Winnipeg Free Press, A4]

This article by Aldo Santin publicised the cooler than average year 2009 has been in Northern Manitoba. Daryll Hedman, the northeast regional wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation noted that the polar bears were able to stay out on the ice of Hudson Bay for two weeks longer this spring because the ice was so thick. As a result, they were fat and healthy. Indeed, “every bear we handled (in Churchill) was in amazing good shape,” Hedman said, but he cautioned that the thicker ice and cooler temperatures were “probably a blip.”

Santin reinforced this idea by adding, “Scientists warn that bear populations are starting to dwindle because of thawing sea ice, over-hunting, industrial activity and increased toxins in the food chain.” Still, they would probably do better in the winter of 2009-2010 as a result of the late spring, said University of Alberta biology professor Andrew Derocher, former chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A proponent of global warming, Derocher added that “A respite from the long-term conditions is certainly good news.” However, ”We’re talking about global change here. This is just one summer.” This consensus is further emphasised in the last sentences of the article. “In other parts of the Arctic, temperatures continue to be warmer than usual, scientists point out,” and “’The overall prognosis for bears on a worldwide basis still remains dim at best,’ Buchanan [Robert Buchanan, head of Polar Bear International] told the Canadian Press in an interview from Alaska. ‘This (summer in Hudson Bay) is an aberration.’”

Discussion: How would you rate this article? Did Santin give any indication of contrary points of view to the so-called consensus on the matter of global warming? How would that have made his article better for the reader? As a result, is his piece investigative reporting or is it propaganda for one viewpoint? Science is based on observation. What observations, as noted in this article, were conducted to determine the present health of Churchill polar bears? When those observations challenged the prevailing view that polar bears are in poor health and in decline as a result, how was that explained, so that the observers did not have to change their belief in global warming?

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Click on the footnote number to return to the text:

[1] Wiebe added in a side column that Manitoba’s bears were not doing well, according to “three-year study that ended in 2006. It found “935 bears in the western Hudson Bay area, compared to roughly 1,200 bears counted in the mid-1990s.” She did not name the authors of the study, which leaves the reader at a loss. She also was selective in her analysis. Consider a comparison between the 2006 bear population and those of the 1950s, when bear populations for the entire Arctic were estimated to be about 5000. What tale does that tell?

[2] In a side column, Wiebe added that Ewins believed that the healthy stocks further north would still be under threat because “melting sea ice could take decades to affect bears that live further north, so conservation efforts have to consider regional difference.” Wiebe might have added a healthy bit of scepticism here, in view of the fact that (1) the Arctic was much warmer a thousand years ago, and polar bears survived, and (2) very cold Arctic winters in the last two years have begun to reverse the meltdown of sea ice. Alarmists cited the decline of sea ice as evidence of global warming caused by human use of carbon fuels. Interestingly, since 1998, the human carbon imprint has been increasing and the earth’s atmosphere is no longer warming.

[3] For Dr. Taylor’s views on the status of polar bears, read the interview he granted to the Frontier Centre of Public Policy in Winnipeg on 15 January 2009.

[4] In a separate column, Wiebe explained further. “Special concern” is one of the lowest-risk designations. Some scientists wanted it raised to “threatened,” the designation that the United States gave to the polar bear in 2008, and which Manitoba adopted in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act.





Last updated : September 10, 2009


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