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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Polar Bears Under Pressure


A firsthand account documents how rising temperatures in the Arctic are depleting food sources and putting the animals at risk

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His nose up in the air, the young male draws nearer. Two others bears that are in his path rise warily and run off as he gets closer. He’s still about 100 yards from camp when he notices us. Without hesitation, he starts running in our direction. Quent, my camping partner, picks up his shotgun. I take a few more images, then abandon my camera for the bear banger. This is no time for action shots. When the bear is 50 yards away and still coming fast, I decide to charge him to break his approach. The young male stops, looks at us, takes a few steps to the side and resumes loping our way. I charge him again, eliciting the same response. After a third charge, the bear still keeps coming. He’s now only 10 yards away. I have the bear banger cocked. One more step, and I’ll fire it. Quent stands behind me with the gun ready in case the bear banger is insufficient to drive the animal off.

This male confuses me. He doesn’t show typical aggressive behavior. A charging, hostile bear has his head down and ears back. This one isn’t friendly, yet he doesn’t appear predatory or ready for a fight either; he comes across as an oversized bully of a dog demanding a treat. At 10 yards, the bear suddenly halts his approach, looks at us intently, glances at the thin wire of the electric fence strung between us and him, lifts his nose and turns around. He walks over to the whale carcass and starts feeding. The only way I can interpret his actions is that he has gotten food from people before, either by being fed or from a village garbage dump or by raiding a hunter’s cache. He probably also has encountered electric fences at some point. When he noticed us, he assumed that this was where the very attractive scent was originating from and made a beeline for us. When we held our ground, he reassessed the situation.

The incident reconfirms how crucial it is for wildlife photographers to know their subject intimately. The wrong behavior could have resulted in a dead bear or a mauled or fatally injured person. While the common perception of polar bears as aggressive manhunters is wrong, the issue remains that individual bears can become problem animals based on their past experiences. As polar bears roam over huge areas, one never can be sure whether a potentially dangerous bear is nearby.

Still, our adventure on the fireweed island shows that the bear can coexist with us. With global warming and a rising demand for resources, the Arctic will see increasing development and population growth. Polar bears will struggle to survive in this changing environment. The real question is whether we’re able and willing to coexist with the bear.

The impact of global warming on polar bears isn’t uniform throughout the Arctic. Some say the most immediate threat is the industrial development taking place in the north. Bears used to live as far south as Newfoundland at a time when the climate was as warm as it is now. But during that time, there were salmon runs and plenty of large whale carcasses for them to scavenge. Today, polar bears don’t live on the Labrador Coast and Newfoundland because they were heavily hunted, the salmon runs ended due to overfishing and whaling depleted whale populations. Animals can survive fluctuating conditions, but if the food source is destroyed, there’s no rebounding.

Matthias Breiter is a bear biologist and has published scientific articles about polar bears and global warming. For the last 20 years, he has lived and worked predominantly in Alaska. To see more of his work, go to www.breiterphoto.com.

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