Ecologist and bear biologist Chris Morgan shares his thoughts on a recent story discussing the increase in polar bears looking to their own kind as a food source:
I’ve been lucky enough to guide several polar bear viewing expeditions to Svalbard in the European high arctic. It is a wildly isolated and beautiful place. The amazing polar bear shots that Jenny Ross captured with her camera jolt us into thinking about the many hidden implications of climate change. So often we’re drawn to the big picture data, or the sweeping effects that our planet is undergoing – and rightly so. But I also like to dwell on the stories that bring climate change to life, through the eyes of individual animals and people. Each and every polar bear is facing increased every-day stress as a result of our warming planet. One year I saw a female and cubs on a chunk of ice the size of perhaps two football fields. It was the last ice of the season in a west coast inlet of Svalbard, and she was going to float it until it was gone.
Bottom line: polar bears need ice. And there is one reason for that – their prey need ice. Polar bears feed almost exclusively on seals, and those seals are what scientists call pagophilic (”ice-loving”). As the world’s frozen seas shrink, so do opportunities for polar bears to hunt these seals and make a living from a habitat that gets smaller every year. Some of them are forced to take extreme measures – in this case cannibalism. In 2006 I found the remains of a bear in Svalbard that could well have been the result of similar cannibalism (see picture) by desperate bears.
Polar bears elsewhere face similar pressures. Their future was never far from my mind when we filmed polar bears for Bears of the Last Frontier in northern Alaska. The Southern Beaufort Sea population is looking at a questionable future – sea ice will decline there by 6% per decade over the next 45 years. We stand to lose two thirds of the world’s polar bears by the year 2050 due to the effects of climate change. That’s 16,000 bears in 40 years, or an average of more than one bear every day. Although difficult when it comes to the future of the polar bear, I like to dwell on the side of optimism. This century’s polar bears will persist for longest in the high arctic archipelago of Canada and northern Greenland – a high latitude refuge for these super-specialists. They will exist in much smaller numbers than they do today, but my hope is that they will provide a constant reminder – as well as a beacon of hope – to do right by our environment, and ultimately to do right by ourselves.
Pictured: Chris Morgan with a polar bear skull in Svalbard. (Credit: Ellie Van Os)
September 13, 2011
I’m just back from another trip to the Alaska Peninsula where I had an incredible experience with a wolf and managed to capture it on film. This is not something that happens every day, but this wolf came over to check us out at very close quarters. There was something about having this wild animal trot towards us that will stay with me forever. Not only that but there’s a giant brown bear in the same frame too! That’s wildness at its best! See and read more at Chris’s blog.
Chris Morgan was back in Alaska for a week in July — two years after filming for Bears of the Last Frontier — and sends a quick video blog from among the bears.
The July 6th grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park saddened me deeply, and struck a chord. My heart goes out to the family of the gentleman who lost his life, and especially to his wife – I can not imagine the sorrow that this incident has caused. I was in Yellowstone National Park just 2 weeks before the attack, meeting with biologists and mangers about grizzly bear management in the area, and across their remaining lower 48 range. Images of the park, and it’s bears were fresh in my mind when I heard the shocking news from Yellowstone. It was also the day I departed to guide a brown bear viewing expedition with four guests for a week on the Alaska Peninsula. It was a sobering topic to launch the experience, but also an opportunity to talk about safety with my excited travel partners from California and Switzerland.
One of the key elements of staying safe in bear country is prevention. Bears don’t like to be surprised – especially grizzly bears that may be defending cubs or a prized food cache. It goes without saying that hiking in groups increases safety – making noise reduces the likelihood of an unwanted confrontation with a defensive bear. Smaller groups have to be very conscious of making noise – especially when the wind is in your face (the bear ahead can’t smell you), or when in thick brush, approaching blind bends in the trail, or hill rises, or when hiking alongside a noisy creek. I’m often the loudest guy on the trail – belting out a “Hey bear!” every so often politely warns a bear of your approach and enables them to take diversionary action – which they most often do. Sometimes it takes people a while to overcome their self-conscious squirms when shouting out to bears, but believe me, it’s worth getting over. If the warning shouts fail to work and you surprise a bear that enters a “defensive” mode, try to remain calm, talking in a firm voice that helps the bear to identify you as a human. And NEVER run – you may trigger a bear’s innate pursuit response, and there is no way to outrun a bear that can top 35 miles per hour.
Here is an excerpt from the National Park Service news release following the Yellowstone attack:
The couple was hiking west back toward their vehicle. At approximately 11:00 a.m., at a point about a mile and a half from the trailhead, they walked out of a forested area into an open meadow. It appears that the couple spotted a bear approximately 100 yards away and then began walking away from the bear. When they turned around to look, they reportedly saw the female grizzly running down the trail at them. The couple began running, but the bear caught up with them, attacking Mr. Matayoshi. The bear then went over to Mrs. Matayoshi, who had fallen to the ground nearby. The bear bit her daypack, lifting her from the ground and then dropping her. She remained still and the bear left the area.
Playing dead probably saved Mrs Matayoshi’s life. Female grizzly bears can be very aggressive when defending their cubs. I have seen mother bears face off, and even chase away males that are more than double their size. But remember – all bears are different. They are exceptionally intelligent mammals, which much room for individual personalities. I always say that any two bears are as different as any two people. There are lovers, and there are fighters, and some bears are far more tolerant of people than others. Just over a week ago I encountered two brown bears on the coast of Alaska – both of them busy grazing on a sedge meadow together. From 100 yards away they heard me call – one of them immediately stood up, then tore off at full speed into the forest 200 yards away, clearly freaked out by our presence. The other? He barely gave us a glance between mouthfuls, calmly continuing to graze, unphased by our presence. In fact he looked bemused at his pal who by now was flattening saplings as he high-tailed it away from us. One of these bears was far more used to seeing humans than the other and was a clear reminder of their propensity for individual personalities born of life experience.
More from the Yellowstone NPS press release:
The initial investigation suggests the sow grizzly acted in a purely defensive nature to protect her cubs. This female bear is not tagged or collared, and does not apparently have a history of aggression or human interaction. Typically, the National Park Service does not trap, relocate, or kill a bear under those circumstances. A Board of Review which will include interagency experts will be convened to review the incident. Bear attacks are extremely rare. No one was hurt by a bear in Yellowstone in 2010. This is the first time a human has been killed by a bear in the park since 1986. Park visitors are encouraged to stay on designated trails, hike in groups of three or more people, and be alert for bears and make noise in blind spots. Visitors are also encouraged to consider carrying bear pepper spray, which has been shown to be highly successful in stopping aggressive behavior in bears. The Matayoshis were not carrying pepper spray.
Whenever I am in bear country, I carry bear spray. And so does every other bear expert I know. It works, and is far more effective than a firearm when facing off a charging bear. Buy the right stuff – not the kind used for deterring humans – and learn how to use it. For more information, go here.
Being in the right state of mind helps too – my partner Bren and I took several hikes on our Yellowstone trip. On one of them our goal was to take in the views of the Lamar Valley by climbing along Specimen Ridge. But just a mile along the trail I spotted someone bush-whacking below the ridge ahead of us. I had a hunch they were avoiding a bear encounter – why else would he be taking the tough route? We continued to climb, knowing our paths would soon cross with the hiker. Sure enough, the first adrenaline-pumped words out of his mouth as we approached were “I suggest you proceed with extreme caution”. He had encountered a grizzly bear on the ridge and took a wide detour to avoid it, which proved quite difficult as the bear was intent on heading in the same direction. It was a windy day – not ideal in bear country – bears tend to become agitated when wind affects their ability to smell with those legendary noses. I decided that caution should prevail and we saved the hike for another day, leaving the ridge to the grizzly bear. There’s plenty of room for everyone in Yellowstone, and it’s good to begin a hike open to the idea of turning back when nature throws a curveball. In fact, on the way out, I convinced another couple to do the same thing. Bren and I returned to Specimen Ridge the next day and had a glorious hike, but I was still the noisiest guy on the trail.
Bear attacks do happen, but far less frequently that myth, folklore, and media might have you believe. Kerry Gunther from Yellowstone National Park helps to keep things in perspective when he says that there’s about a 1-in-3 million chance of being attacked by a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park. There are around 650 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and around 3 million annual visitors – perhaps the most surprising thing is that attacks don’t occur more often.
Our willingness to accept the grizzly bear as an iconic representative of the wild will become the truest test of human nature and our ability to coexist with powerful carnivores in a world that provides less and less space for them to survive. I hope that we are able to find a way. My deepest sympathies to the Matayoshi family. Our thoughts are with you.
Chris Morgan, MS Ecology
Host and Narrator PBS Nature ‘Bears of the Last Frontier’
Chris Morgan in a radio interview about Bears of the Last Frontier, BEARTREK, and North Cascades grizzly bears with Steve Scher of NPR KUOW. Listen to the podcast.
In the heart of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, Chris meditates on the importance of our national park system.
Chris: “Gates of the Arctic National Park is an unknown jewel in the North American park system. I knew very little about it before our work on Bears of the Last Frontier began, but it quickly stole my heart. It is a combination of vast rolling tundra, and massive jagged peaks that feed thousands of tiny creeks and dozens of mighty rivers. The bush plane flight that brought us here from the tiny town of Bettles was undoubtedly the most dramatic flight I have ever been on. The park lies in the heart of the vast Brooks Range – the northernmost major mountain chain in the world. The park is giant – over 13,000 square miles (about the size of Switzerland), and was established with great foresight in 1980. It is a park with truly Alaskan wilderness at its heart, with no established roads, trails, visitor facilities, or campgrounds.
In contrast, many areas in Alaska do NOT enjoy the same level of protection as its National Parks. The National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska is one example. It is a chunk of land the size of ten Yellowstones, yet most people have never heard of it, and its future as an untouched wilderness hangs in the balance due to the fact that nearly three trillion tons of coal and huge quantities of oil lie beneath its surface.”
Chris is temporarily stuck in the furthest western reaches of the Alaskan Arctic after a fog comes in, preventing an off-site helicopter from returning to the area.
Chris: “Alaska is a land of extremes – even in the spring and summer the weather can change in an instant. It did on this occasion and Daniel Zatz (Cineflex operator) and I were left stranded on a mountain top in the far northwest corner of Alaska as the fog rolled in after the helicopter left for another location. It was due to return to collect us but didn’t show up. Our satellite battery was down to one bar, food was low, and we began to really take stock of the equipment we had with us. Fortunately I was a boy scout, so I’m always prepared. In this clip you’ll see me reviewing the situation and figuring out a game plan, just in case our ride doesn’t come to pick us up.”
Ecologist and bear biologist Chris Morgan are on the search for the Arctic’s large caribou population.
Chris: “It all seems so easy on the finished film! But I love this behind-the-scenes clip because it gives a real sense of the time we had to put in to find nearly half a million Western Arctic caribou. When you consider that they roam an area the size of Montana it becomes easier to understand how the search can become endless. Joe and I were up all night on many exhausting occasions in very remote camps searching by foot, helicopter, and bush plane, but the payoff was a moment that will stay with me forever. In episode three you will see what I mean, but check out this clip for a taste of the search that went into it. Of course we were on the lookout for Arctic grizzly bears that follow the herd – especially at this time of year – calving season, but they were even more difficult to find and film than the caribou. I have to say, I came away completely fascinated by caribou – they play such an important ecological role here in the vast, beautiful western Arctic – aerating soils with their many thousands of hooves, spreading nitrogen and fertilizer in the form of urine and feces, and of course providing one hundred twenty five million pounds of meat for bears and wolves!”
Ecologist Chris Morgan and filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo film a family of Arctic grizzlies fishing for salmon in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.
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