Plight of the Polar Bear: “The Entire Ecosystem Is Failing in Front of Our Eyes”

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The current EPA transition team leader might not believe in global warming, but its impacts are not an option for the northern Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba. In this small town, attacks from hungry polar bears are a constant threat to humans that are only getting worse as the ice continues to melt.

Every October and November the bears descend on Churchill, a town of 800, on the animal's traditional migratory route, as they wait for the sea ice to freeze so they can hunt for seals. But as the climate warms, and the ice takes longer to form, the animals wander to human-filled towns, like Churchill, hungry.

A new six-part series called Polar Bear Town from the Smithsonian Channel documents this community's struggle to protect humans, respect the bears, and nurture the region's growing ecotourism industry. The show also goes into detail on the town's elaborate bear-control system where angry bears are sedated with dart guns, held in a controlled facility, known as "polar bear jail," and released when the sea ice finally forms.

We spoke with Donald Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo, an endangered species specialist, and polar bear expert who helped inform the show. 

Have there been any changes in the polar bear population?

The population is doing so much worse. The Churchill population, which is the Western Hudson Bay population, is down by nearly 20 percent. The sea ice is melting, and this summer was the largest melt in the area that we know of. As the temperature of the world goes up, the arctic just keeps melting.

How much has the polar bear population declined?

It looks like we have a 20 to 25 percent decline in the last 10 to 15 years. There are also big declines in the seal population. The entire ecosystem is failing in front of our eyes. By the way, 15 years ago, we were still worried about poaching of polar bears and how that would affect their population, and then we started to watch this habitat melt in front of our eyes in a period of years. Even as the rest of the world said don’t worry, there is no climate change, we were watching the arctic ice melt and melt. It has been there for thousands of years, and it is melting in our lifetimes. That is how I and a lot of other scientists became concerned about climate change.

Is there anything we can do at this point?

I think people are always surprised that their actions, driving their car, buying fruit that comes from another continent, turning on their lights and not turning them off when they leave the room, can have this incredible outsized effect on polar bears in the Arctic. Humans everywhere, collectively, even though these are small actions, can have such an outsized effect on the globe.

How long have the bears been coming to Churchill?

That is their historic migratory route. A port was put there back in the 19th century, and then the port eventually became a town. And then there was a NORAD base there, and then military infrastructure was built there, and still polar bears were coming through there. And then there was this idea of tundra buggies and ecotourism economy, and an economy where scientists would study polar bears all developed from that. There are also beluga whales, and lots of migratory birds.

In Churchill they sedate the bears with dart guns, and put them in “polar bear jail” until the ice freezes and they can continue to hunt for food. Is this the best solution we have at this point?

I think it is. You have a lot of people who have been living with polar bears for many years, and they have the infrastructure, and the bear biologists with their knowledge, and the local native people with their indigenous knowledge. So all of the stake holders from government to indigenous local groups and local trappers who live on the land can have a collaborative discussion. I think Churchill is the model for the world.

What impact does tourism have?


I think it helps create awareness, that is for sure. It is a great trip for people who want to be inspired by this large, beautiful predator. I don’t think there is a big adverse affect on the bear population. Bears and tundra buggy interactions have been studied by different scientists, and bears habituate pretty well to the buggies — and the bears around Churchill are fairly habituated. They are very very smart animals. In comparing them to my black labs at home, they are smarter than the dogs, and I have had some smart dogs. They figure it out. They figure out where people are being reasonable and not hunting them and they go there, and they figure out where they are going to be harassed and where they shouldn’t be.

Is there anything else that people can do?


If someone is concerned about polar bears and their survival, or the Arctic and its survival, or the survival as the world as we have known it in all of human history, they can take individual actions to start mitigating that. Drive less, take public transportation, eat local, turn off your lights when you are not in the room. But Americans and Europeans have had an abundance economy, and just keep driving up their carbon footprint. We have to get away from the notion that the earth is infinite and will provide infinite resources.