Polar bear diplomacy: Where the US and Russia can agree

On an arctic island 250 miles from the nearest Siberian village, US and Russian scientists are collaborating on wildlife research. Their work proves: Conservation transcends geopolitics.

Joel Berger
The movements of a musk oxen herd are captured here on Wrangel Island, Russia, in March 2014.

The icy wind is wicked. It’s about minus 10 degrees, and near whiteout conditions dominate this landscape of rock and snow known as Wrangel Island. Some 250 miles from the nearest village in the Siberian Arctic, this bleak terrain is home to my Russian co-workers, whose tenacity I (an American scientist) have long admired.

Working alongside me, but lacking in modern amenities – no efficient snow machines, no helicopters, often no binoculars – they persevere for one reason. They wish to learn about animals and their movements, and to understand the island’s polar environment.

Our shared interest is in how Earth’s warming temperatures will affect cold-adapted species such as musk oxen and polar bears. But our cooperation isn’t simply about saving arctic animals. It proves that the common issues – and threats – that confront us as inhabitants of Earth can, and do, bring us together, in spite of geopolitical differences.

Why walruses matter to Earth’s future

Wrangel Island is a World Heritage site known for its tremendous biological resources. Its landscape provides a unique and vital research ground for wildlife scientists. It is home to Asia’s largest denning population of polar bears and as many as 100,000 walruses. It’s also home to musk oxen, the resplendent longhaired shaggy beasts that once roamed with – and out-survived – the long-extinct woolly mammoths. 

It is also a part of Russia, where 20 years ago the Wildlife Conservation Society began science and conservation programs thousands of miles to the south that continue to shed light on a complex landscape. The Russian geography is the only place on Earth where species from subtropical Asia mix with those from the cold north. Where else could we learn that tigers kill brown bears or eat moose? Nowhere.

At a time when many in the West question Russia’s geopolitical actions, especially regarding Ukraine, one might ask why it is a priority for American scientists to work on the ground with Russians to research and save arctic animals. The answer is simple: Conservation is the provenance of all. Irrespective of geography, animals have no voice.

Climate change in the Arctic is more rapid than in other areas. It thus provides a crucial laboratory and proving ground for how to respond to damaging shifts in the complex ecological relationships that are vital to the long-term survival of biodiverse life on Earth. 

On Arctic islands, we’ve seen that musk oxen and caribou suffer when increasingly severe rain-on-snow events occur because they cannot access their food. Migratory birds now arrive at spring feeding grounds before insects emerge, and they, too, suffer. By understanding these relationships, scientists can consider the best options for protecting species and critical habitats.

Choosing polar animals over politics

Although global politics – especially the volatility associated with Russia’s guardianship of Crimea – dominate current world attention, it is important to step back and to peer in at the Russian bear. Russia could have closed its doors to outsiders. It could have said, “Leave conservation to us.” It could have canceled our US scientific permits merely because we work in what are designated sensitive border zones. It has not.

Not long ago, I set off from Montana to Moscow, then crossed eight time zones eastward to access remote Wrangel Island. Despite the sudden political upheaval in Crimea, the Russian authorities agreed to allow our collaborative project to continue – a joint science venture sponsored by a grant from the US National Park Service and the New York-based Trust for Mutual Understanding.

In fact, officials on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceanic divides enabled and continue to permit exchanges between Russian and American scientists for these kinds of projects. 

Conservation requires cooperation

Conservation is not just about animals. Because people are the root of most problems in the natural world, conservation is also about the human dimension. That dimension typically requires cooperation of multiple parties, which means conservation is also about people working together with patience – and persistence.

Conservation requires people – sometimes with opposing views – to talk together, to listen to each other, and to learn. Indeed, Russian and American scientists have been doing these things for a long time – with success. Musk oxen were returned to Siberia’s Chukotka Autonomous Region back in the 1970s when they came to Wrangel Island from Alaska with the assistance of cooperating American and Russian authorities. 

Nature doesn’t follow political boundaries

This remains a very fruitful collaboration. More recently, there has been talk of giving “sister park” status to protected adjacent reserves of global significance separated only by the Chukchi and Bering seas. Such a designation would enhance the sharing of cultural and biological knowledge and promote conservation more broadly.

It is important to remember that even when nations go through periods of conflict of one kind or another, there can be lights that shine brightly between them. 

Wildlife and nature do not organize themselves according to political boundaries, nor must conservation. All earthly denizens share land and water and air with each other; it is therefore essential we work together to manage and protect them.

That the US and Russian governments allow conservation and science to move forward cooperatively on Wrangel offers cause for optimism that these efforts may continue to transcend our inevitable political differences.

Joel Berger is a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the John J. Craighead chair in wildlife biology at the University of Montana.

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