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Polar Bears Struggle to Survive as Arctic Climate Changes

November 25, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, two reports on the polar bears’ struggle to survive in a changing climate. Lawrence McGinty of Independent Television News filed this story from Churchill on Canada’s Hudson Bay.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY, ITN ITV NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Amid the broken rubble of sea ice, a forlorn polar bear unable to hunt seals, unable to go where it wants, a refugee almost in its own land, stranded because the sea ice on the Hudson Bay is forming weeks later than it used to.

The sea ice we’re flying over is where the polar bears live. It’s their niche in the world. It’s their supermarket where they get meat from hunting seals. It’s their highway for traveling around the Arctic region. It’s their school where they teach cubs how to hunt.

We’d come to meet Canada’s foremost expert on polar bears, Andrew Derocher.

Hi, Andy. Lawrence McGinty, hi, please to meet you.

DR. ANDREW DEROCHER, University of Alberta: Hey, good to see you.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Andrew is a biology professor who’s studied polar bear populations for 28 years.

DR. ANDREW DEROCHER: When it comes to the loss of sea ice, the major issue there is that you’re cutting down the amount of time that the bears have to feed. We’re just basically taking them away from their primary habitat, where they have access to seals, and we’re forcing them onshore. In this area, when they come ashore, they really don’t have much to eat.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: One reason our pilot, Lynn, is on watch with a shotgun ready to chase off any hungry bears.

DR. ANDREW DEROCHER: Two to three times as many bears are not feeding in the springtime. And this is the best time of year for feeding.

So we really are concerned that this is just another one of these symptoms. And when you add them all together between drowning bears, we’re seeing increased cannibalism in other areas, many areas we’re also seeing more problem bears.

Bears struggle to find food

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: When problem bears wander into Churchill, this is where they end up. They call it "bear jail."

This 4-year-old male, weighing 720 pounds, has been here for 30 days. Now sedated, he's about to be airlifted back into the wild. An adult bear like this one needs the fat from 45 seals a year to survive.

Even as the pilot gently lowers him to the ground 20 miles from town, they don't know whether in the months ahead he'll be able to catch enough seals out on the sea ice.

DARRYL HEDMAN, Manitoba Conservation Wildlife Manager: Just the time of year that it is, I'm judging he's not going to be back. But we have had ones that we've let go here, and three days later they're back in the town of Churchill.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: They'll know if he does come back, because every bear released is individually marked.

DARRYL HEDMAN: You just have to -- it'll be a number. It's upside-down, but X32432.

DR. ANDREW DEROCHER: The strength in these guys is absolutely phenomenal. You see them drag around a 400-kilo seal like it's -- like a big bearded seal. It's just like a rag doll, and they can run with them. It's just amazing.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Amazing they may be, but scientists like Andrew are pessimistic about the future.

DR. ANDREW DEROCHER: It's clear from the research that's been done by myself and colleagues around the world that we're projecting that, by the middle of this century, two-thirds of the polar bears will be gone from their current populations.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Some bears could survive in the colder high Arctic, even then perhaps not enough to continue the survival of the species.

Hunting quotas imposed

JUDY WOODRUFF: ITN's Lawrence McGinty continues with this report filed from Arviat, more than 100 miles north of Churchill, where the native people live side by side with the polar bear.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Inuit have been hunting with dogs for 4,000 years. Taking their dogsleds out onto sea ice to hunt polar bears is at the heart of their tradition and their whole life.

We traveled with local hunters on their sled, but not hunting. The Inuit of Arviat can't hunt bears this year, because they've reached their quota of just three bears. Only two years ago, they were allowed 22.

Hunter and Mayor Johnny Mamgark is a man with a lot on his mind.

MAYOR JOHNNY MAMGARK, Arviat, Canada: The government dropped the quota, so we're not allowed to hunt any more bears. And that is because they say they're declining. But back here in our way, there are so many bears, and I don't think they're declining.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: That's the irony. The Inuits says Arviat is being invaded by polar bears, but they can't hunt them.

MICHAEL MAMGARK: They just counted 11 bears today around town. And there's more bears coming, so lots of bears around.

Bears more common in town

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Back in town, it was a school holiday, and the kids were playing hockey. With childish naivety, they told me bears didn't worry them, but hungry bears in town do worry the mayor.

That night, on the way to Johnny's house, we heard reports of another sighting, the 12th that day. We joined his son-in-law on the regular bear patrol. And it wasn't long before he spotted the intruder.

SON-IN-LAW: Damn, that looks like a polar bear.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Despite the warning shots, the bear lingers, and Jonathan has to reload. By now, people from all over town are coming to help, training their headlights on the bear, which has found the carcass of a seal.

Jonathan knows he has to act. He fires at the bear with plastic bullets, the last line of defense before live ammunition.

For families like Johnny's, bear hunting provides meat, fur, and, with the occasional trophy hunt, jobs and prosperity. But bears are also symbolic for the Inuit, as he told me over a bowl of caribou stew, to be feared, respected, and, yes, hunted.

MAYOR JOHNNY MAMGARK: We live with them, and we hunt them, we eat them. We know them like we know where to hunt them or where they're going to be in this time of the year or this time of the month, because we've been with them all our lives.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: The stories told in the Inuit drum dances embody their age-old knowledge of their land and its animals. Trouble is, their world is changing so rapidly, their native wisdom may not be enough to counter the threat to the polar bear and to the Inuit themselves.