Are Polar Bears Doomed Due to a Warming Climate?

I am not a denier of anthropogenic global warming, but have been deeply skeptical of and disappointed in the politicization of the science.  And, unfortunately, far too many climate scientists have lost credibility and the mantle of scientific objectivity critical to changing the public dialogue.

Yet despite my skepticism of climate alarmism and those who profess absolute certainty in the face of scientific uncertainty, I have long supported a “no regrets” policy in the event that the implications of AGW are as dire as many climate scientists argue.  The inconvenient truth can only be illumined if it is indeed “truth” we seek.

One of the implications of AGW is the threat of a warming climate on species, and the ability (or inability) of certain species to adapt to changing ecosystems due to a warming environment.  This argument has been particularly poignant with the plight of the polar bear and the melting of sea-ice, which polar bears use to hunt their primary food source, ringed and bearded seals.

According to a Washington Post article this past week titled Without Action on Climate Change Say Goodbye to Polar Bears some scientists are predicting the collapse of 80 percent of the bear population, leading to rapid extinction of the entire species.  However, for some scientists the predictions aren’t so dire.

It would be a grave travesty for these magnificent creatures to go the way of the Dodo Bird, the Javan Tiger, the Passenger Pigeon, and numerous others.  So these alarming predictions should make us all take pause.

Dr. Dan Botkin, a renowned scientist, who acknowledges the occurrence of AGW and has spent years studying species dynamics and helped to recover many species on the brink of extinction, has recently opined on the plight of the polar bear.  But Botkin’s perspective doesn’t necessarily follow the view of the WaPo article.   According to Botkin,

The debate over whether polar bears are an  endangered species continues since it was  made into a major environmental issue in  the United States by Al Gore’s 2006 film An  Inconvenient Truth.  With so many real and  serious  environmental  problems  to  deal  with, many ignored, it is time to set the  record straight about polar bears.  So here  are the two sides of the issue.   On one side is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife  Service and other parts of the Federal Government.

The bear has been listed as officially “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act
since 2008 by the U. S.  Fish and Wildlife Service, which stated in its Polar Bear Consensus:

“It cannot be overstated that the single most important action  for the recovery of polar bears is to significantly reduce the present levels of global greenhouse gas emissions. . . . The sooner  global  warming  and  sea‐ice  loss  are  stopped, the better the long‐ term prognosis  for the species.”

Until last year, the International Union for  the  Conservation  of  Nature  (IUCN)  sided with Al Gore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife  Service.

In  2004  the  IUCN  Polar  Bear  Specialist  Group stated that  the polar bear should be  upgraded from Least Concern to Vulnerable  based on the likelihood of an overall decline  in the size of the total population of more  than 30 percent within the next 35 to 50  years.

However, having studied the populations of endangered species throughout my career, and having made the first -ever mathematically quantitative calculation of the probability  of  extinction  of  any  species  (the whooping crane) and done research on a  variety of endangered species from those  cranes to bowhead whales, I have found the  listing of polar bears odd.  So has Susan Crockford, a Canadian biologist—geneticist—best known for her research on how some wolves became dogs (a hormonal change).   She and I have cooperated at long distance (never having met in person) for a number  of years about the polar bears.

Here are the important facts. There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, divided  into  19  subpopulations  around  the  North Pole.  When the claim was first made that this large number of animals was endangered,  I  looked  at  the  available  data. The 19 populations had been (and still are)  treated separately by scientists.

Botkin goes on to offer some very interesting real-life observations that run contrary to the view that polar bears are doomed.  While I’d love to share the entire article, I am unable to do so for copyright reasons.  For those who may be interested in Dr. Botkin’s perspective, you can subscribe to his monthly newsletter and read for yourself.  (note: there is a modest fee to subscribe, but I have found his newsletter to be informative on many complex and oft politicized scientific issues).