We humans are the reason that polar bears are threatened and their numbers dwindling. So it is tragically ironic that, in order to save them, humans may have to feed or even kill polar bears, or so twelve scientists (all experts about polar bears) argue recently in a new paper, “Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation,” in Conservation Letters, a publication of the Society for Conservation Biology.
The unexpectedly fast melting of the sea ice in the Arctic is the reason that we need to significantly step up efforts to protect polar bears or risk seeing them disappear from the earth forever.
Currently there are 19 populations of polar bears in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Russia. These countries need to seriously consider more aggressive measures to save the bears. Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050, according to a landmark 2008 U.S.-government-appointed panel led by Steve Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International and one of the authors of the new study.
The logistics of feeding polar bears are, as you may imagine, quite involved. With the loss of the sea ice (it has declined 72 percent from 1979 to 2010), the bears have had to retreat inland, making it increasingly difficult for them to hunt ringed seals, one of their favored foods. Polar bears can consume five seals a week and hunters would have to kill thousands of seals and airlift them via helicopter to keep the bears fed.
Could We Have to Euthanize Starving Polar Bears?
Armstrup, the University of Alberta’s Andrew Derocher (the author of “Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior“) and the other scientists also argue that translocation –moving bears from areas such as Canada’s Hudson Bay to the high Canadian Arctic — and “intentional population reduction” may also be necessary. The latter measure would involve the unthinkable, the intentional killing of starving bears.
Clearly this is a drastic measure, but scientists say it could be necessary as there could come a time when, due to habitat loss, there are too many polar bears even for zoos to accept.
The scientists acknowledge that the suggestion of something like euthanizing polar bears is extreme. But the reason to bring it up is to communicate to the public how dire the situation has become for polar bears. As Derocher says to the Guardian,
“The sooner we consider the options, the sooner we’ll have a plan…It has always seemed that we’ve been behind the curve on climate change and polar bears,” he said, noting that conservation planning for polar bears has typically extended several decades into the future. “That time frame leads one to think you’ve got time. But the science is clear that this is a fallacy.”
Certainly feeding bears — such has been done to support populations of brown bears in Eastern Europe — is a less alarming step to take, as Derocher notes to the New York Times. For all they now have a solid understanding of why polar bear populations are declining so quickly, our efforts to actually do something concrete are, says Derocher in the Guardian, ”glacial compared to the actual changes we’re seeing in sea ice and the bears themselves” — polar bears’ chances for survival are disappearing as fast as the sea ice, unless we take action now.
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