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Polar Bears Are Big

December 21, 2009

Ever since Al Gore used them in An Inconvenient Truth as one of the tragic examples of the consequences of global climate change, polar bears have regularly been in the news.

This week at the Climate Change meetings in Copenhagen they are a featured animal. In the center of that city a life-size sculpture of a polar bear has been carved out of a nine-ton block of ice. It will melt down to nothing during the meetings, a vivid metaphor for the decline and possible disappearance of that majestic creature.

The idea probably came from Al Gore’s movie, but, as it turns out, there are some inconvenient non-truths in his documentary, and one of them relates to polar bears. An Inconvenient Truth claims that polar bears are dying of starvation and exhaustion because they have to swim so much due to the melting icecap. In 2007 some Brits tried to get the movie banned from schools because of this claim. That made a splash in the media.

A British judge eventually ruled that the polar bear assertion was one of the nine errors of fact in the movie. Polar bears were not dying because of a scarcity of ice. [It’s hard to argue with those who believe that Gore’s movie is further evidence that Academy Awards are no guarantee of artistic merit or that Al is just another fat documentary filmmaker with a big publicity machine and a flawed message.]

Just two weeks ago another polar bear incident hit the media and went viral. In Churchill, Manitoba on November 20, three weeks after I went there to see the bears, a large male polar bear separated a yearling cub from its mother and devoured it in front of a bunch of horrified tourists in a tundra buggy.

This was not the only incidence of infanticide by polar bears around Churchill. Eight other examples have been reported this year.

It’s been a tough year for all the bears in the Churchill area. A very mild autumn and subsequent late freeze-up have meant that the bears have been stuck on shore. Since they don’t eat much during their summer hibernation, the longer they wait to get onto the ice to hunt seals, the hungrier they get. To adult bears, cubs are fair game.

The problem is exacerbated because the polar bear populations on the western shores of Hudson Bay have shrunk from 1200 to less than 950 in recent years. The decline is dramatic enough that the Manitoba government is taking serious action.

In the past couple of days the Manitoba government has set aside 4,000 square kilometers of coastline along Hudson Bay for the protection of polar bears, seals, beluga whales, caribou and migratory birds. This follows a commitment of $31 million for a polar bear research center and exhibit at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo.

That’s big news here. And big enough elsewhere to get the current premier of the province, Greg Selinger, and his predecessor Gary Doer, now Canada’s ambassador to the US, invited to the Copenhagen meetings to talk about polar bears and what needs to be done to save them.

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