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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polar bear

Fireweed drapes a purple blanket over the disturbed soils of the coastal lowlands. Just a few days earlier, the flowers stood tall. Now, many are beaten down by a major storm that passed through, battering the exposed shores for a full day. Breakers more than 20 feet tall crashed against the boulder-covered beach. Our tent finally capitulated against the onslaught of the elements and collapsed on top of us. We spent the rest of the storm in a little shelter created from driftwood and a couple of tarps. Now 48 hours later, the Arctic coast is again bathed in sunshine, yet the ocean is still too rough for travel. We’re marooned on this spit of land measuring only a few hundred yards across that at high tide becomes an island.

We chose this spot because of the flowers that provide a colorful backdrop to the Arctic wildlife inhabiting the area. But we’re also here to document with our cameras how polar bears fare during an Arctic summer that has become warmer and longer in recent years because of global warming.

Information is somewhat conflicting on the impact of the recent temperature rise in the Arctic on polar bears. On one hand, there are reports indicating lower cub survival in Alaska. Bodies have been found drowned off the north shore of the state. In contrast to the past, pack ice in the summer is now often hundreds of miles offshore, providing the animals with almost no opportunity to hunt during the warm months of the year. In that part of the Arctic, the future of the polar bear, even in the short term, is uncertain, so the animal was put on the endangered species list in the United States.

polar bears

In other areas, the impact of global warming isn’t yet felt as badly as in Alaska. Several polar bear populations are presently increasing in numbers. Inuit living on the Hudson Bay coast of Arctic Canada report that there have never been as many polar bears as today. However, this may be primarily due to the fact that prior to 1970, the hunting pressure on bears was intense. In recent years, polar bear numbers have gone down around Churchill, the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world, and the average weight of the animals has dropped. But this also could be partly related to the closing of the town dump and increased human presence. There are still females with triplets observed almost every spring in the denning area south of Churchill, indicating that the mother was in very good condition at the time of entering the den. Our trip to the Arctic coast in summer will help us learn how the animals survive when there’s no ice to use as a hunting platform and to get an idea of what shape the bears are in.

In the first week, we saw the occasional bear patrolling the coastline for flotsam. Most of them were adult males who kept their distance and showed no interest in us at all. One young bear, probably in his first year on his own, hung around camp for a couple of days before moving off. Everything is different now because the storm brought a present on its wings. The high waves washed up a dead beluga whale 100 yards from our camp.

When we discovered the carcass, we were immediately aware of its implications. It was only a matter of time until the smell would attract scavengers, particularly bears. The small electric fence we used to create a “safe” perimeter around camp seemed pathetically inadequate. It may deter a curious bear, but not one looking for food.

polar bears

We expected to have some exciting days ahead of us. After all, summer is a time of hardship and acute food shortage for polar bears despite the fact that there’s a lot of wildlife around. Geese populate the coastal areas in the hundreds of thousands, but a bear would have to catch one within a few seconds. Otherwise, he’d spend more energy in the chase than he’d get out of the meal. Caribou and Arctic hare shared the small island with us, but not a single bear even attempted to hunt them, as they’re too fleet-footed. Our observations confirm that in summer, there’s almost no food source available to polar bears except for carrion, making them vulnerable when winters get shorter. Many bears haven’t eaten since they came off the ice two months ago. As hungry animals tend to be more short-tempered than the well-fed, this realization increased our apprehension. To make matters worse, polar bears are considered to be very aggressively disposed, by nature, and the only carnivore that will actually hunt men.

I was certain to witness strong competition among the bears for the carcass. My worry was that the aggression between the bears could jump the species barrier. A frustrated animal that was displaced from the whale may direct his anger at an innocent bystander. A beluga is only marginally larger than an adult bull moose, and I’ve watched grizzlies defend a moose carcass violently even at a time when other food sources were available in abundance. If the polar bears lived up to their reputation, the animals should fight for access to food more fiercely than grizzlies.

polar bears

It didn’t take long for the first one to arrive. For two hours, a young female fed nonstop, occasionally lifting her head to scan the area for other bears. Then to our amazement, after having her fill, she moved off, and we didn’t see her again for the rest of the day. In the next 24 hours, one by one, other polar bears showed up until we had 10 around camp. The animals were of all sizes. One huge, obese male could barely walk more than 50 yards without having to sit down to rest, panting heavily. None of the bears showed us any interest, nor was there any squabbling over the meal. Mostly, one bear ate while others waited their turn. At other times, even bears of different sizes would feed shoulder to shoulder. My preconceived image of the polar bear was turning out to be wrong. This wasn’t the animal I had expected to see. If anything, these polar bears were less aggressive than grizzlies.

By the second day, we left our compound to move among the bears. None of the animals showed any hostility or dominant behavior toward us. The only reaction we evoked was slight avoidance in a few of them. However, to take these animals for granted could quickly become a fatal mistake, a truth that’s driven home a little while later.

We’re now back at camp. The wind is blowing the scent of the dead whale down the coast. At regular intervals, I scan the horizon for new arrivals. I spot a bear when he’s still more than a mile away. His determined step and alert body posture make me uneasy. He’s also within the age group of animals that worries me most. Full adults usually show little interest in man. They know how to live in the Arctic environment. Very young animals in the first years on their own get pushed around by all bears and are usually easy to impress. It’s the nearly full-grown—the bear equivalent of a late teenager—that most often pose problems. They’re big enough to hold their own against other bears, with the exception of dominant males. They like to flex their muscles and, weighing around 700 to 800 pounds, they’re a formidable force. They’re still inquisitive, investigating everything unknown in search for food. They’re almost unstoppable if they have their mind set on something.

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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.