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Canadian controversy: How do polar bears fare?

Despite global warming, an ongoing study says polar bear populations are rising in the country's eastern Arctic region.

By Fred LanganCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 2007


Polar bears are the poster animals of global warming. The image of a polar bear floating on an ice floe is one of the most dramatic visual statements in the fight against rising temperatures in the Arctic.

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But global warming is not killing the polar bears of Canada's eastern Arctic, according to one ongoing study. Scheduled for release next year, it says the number of polar bears in the Davis Strait area of Canada's eastern Arctic – one of 19 polar bear populations worldwide – has grown to 2,100, up from 850 in the mid-1980s.

"There aren't just a few more bears. There are a ... lot more bears," biologist Mitchell Taylor told the Nunatsiaq News of Iqaluit in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Earlier, in a long telephone conversation, Dr. Taylor explained his conviction that threats to polar bears from global warming are exaggerated and that their numbers are increasing. He has studied the animals for the Nunavut government for two decades.

Updates from the study by Taylor and his team have received significant media coverage in Canada, shaking the image of the polar bear as endangered.

"I don't think there is any question polar bears are threatened by global warming," responds Andrew Derocher of the World Conservation Union and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He spoke by phone from Tuktoyaktuk in Canada's Northwest Territories 1,800 miles to the west of Davis Strait.

This past weekend, the midday temperature was just 6 degrees F. on the shore of the Arctic Ocean there. Daylight now lasts 18 hours, from 6 a.m. until just before midnight.

Perfect conditions for polar bear hunting. But Professor Derocher and a graduate student, Seth Cherry, are shooting the animals with tranquilizer darts and fitting them with radio transmitters. It's part of a long-term effort to figure out whether the huge carnivores – with the Kodiak bear, the largest on the planet – are being hurt by global warming.

The study by Taylor and his team has received widespread media coverage in Canada, shaking the image of the polar bear as endangered. There are even questions about the famous photograph of a polar bear adrift on what looks like an isolated and melting ice floe. Even scientists who firmly believe that the bears are under threat from climate change say the picture doesn't tell the whole truth.

Polar bears often travel on ice floes, and they can swim "easily" in open water for 60 miles, according to Derocher. "Bears will often hang out on glacier ice or large pieces of multiyear ice. To me that picture looked a little fudged," he says. "But some colleagues of mine said it was legit."

But Derocher still maintains the polar bear is threatened, even if its numbers aren't down all across the circumpolar region where the giant bears live and hunt (). Of the 13 polar bear populations in Canada, at least two are in decline, Derocher says. The number of polar bears along the western edge of Hudson Bay, for example, has fallen by 22 percent over the last decade.

"They are declining due to global warming and changes in when the ice freezes and melts in Hudson Bay," says Derocher. The port of Churchill on Hudson Bay has seen its shipping season lengthen because of disappearing ice.