Steven Amstrup says it's not too late to save polar bears – and ourselves
'We know the answer to what it takes to save' polar bears, says environmental prize winner Steven Amstrup, who has gone to the Arctic to study the bears for 30 years.
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"I feel very lucky to have a career working on a species that really gets people's attention and has really captured the human imagination," Amstrup says.Skip to next paragraph
He's been surprised by polar bears that wandered up to him while he was busy putting a radio collar or ear tag on another bear. Probably his most harrowing encounter, however, came in the early 2000s, when his team was doing research on bear dens and accidentally picked one that was occupied.
"We didn't find that out until my foot went through the roof of the lair, and I was just kind of dangling there up to my crotch in the snow, and I looked down and there was the female's head right next to my leg," Amstrup says. "I don't know why she didn't bite me. She looked at me with this really interesting gaze."
Amstrup quickly scrambled away. The bear emerged from her den and started to charge him and his assistant. "By then, the helicopter pilot got the helicopter started, and the engine noise scared her away," he says. "To this day, I certainly count my lucky stars."
In general, Amstrup finds the bears to be more curious and less bad-tempered than their grizzly cousins. A colleague, he says, calls polar bears "grizzlies on Valium."
"Each one has their own personality. They're not all the same – just like dogs and cats and humans," says Amstrup, who points out that some female polar bears will roam 230,000 square miles – a territory nearly the size of Texas – while others prefer to stay close to home, traveling less than 400 square miles.
"We have captured a number of young polar bears over the years, and some of them are just like a family pet and some are just chain saws with fur," he says.
Over the decades, as sea ice has retreated, Amstrup has observed behavioral changes, most notably polar bears showing up regularly where they had rarely been seen before.
"For example, on the north coast of Alaska, where I did most of my research, it used to be that seeing a polar bear on land was not very common. Now, there are polar bears all up and down the coast throughout the ice-free period," he says. "And it used to be that we didn't have an ice-free period."
That is, he says, perhaps the biggest change. "When I first went to Alaska, in the early 1980s, you could stand on the beach at the end of summer and see the ice. Now, it's 200 or 300 miles off shore, or more," Amstrup says. "It's a very different world than when I first went."
The speed at which changes are occurring in the Arctic makes it important for people to respond quickly, he says.
"The world is changing so fast. We need to act fast to change its direction. Time really is of the essence here. Even if you don't care about polar bears, we're talking about changes that affect all life on Earth," he says. "Polar bears just happen to be feeling it first because their habitat happens to literally melt when the temperature rises."
Every month or so, he says, someone writes to suggest putting giant floating pieces of styro-foam in the Arctic for the polar bears. While both are white and float, styrofoam isn't capable of sustaining the ecosystem of algae and bacteria that grows on the underside of the ice. It feeds the shrimp that feed the fish that feed the seals, which Amstrup calls "giant fat pills," a rich food source that has helped polar bears become the largest member of the bear family, with males weighing up to 1,500 pounds and measuring more than eight feet in length.