Polar bears just might outlive us all

They've become the fuzzy face of climate change. But these animals are far more resilient than we like to think

Published December 30, 2012 4:00PM (EST)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard On January 24, 2004, in the frigid moonscape of an Arctic winter, wildlife biologist Steven Amstrup rode in a helicopter flying low over the ice. Using an infrared heat detector, he hoped to find polar bears in their dens. When the gun recorded a hit, Amstrup circled around for a closer look. What confronted him was something he had never seen in 34 years of research. The mouth of the den was open, and a smear of bright-red blood stretched away for more than 200 feet. At the end of a long drag trail in the ice lay the still-warm body of a female polar bear. The air temperature was 20 degrees below zero; this bear could not have been dead for more than 12 hours.

Polar bears do not have enemies. A male can weigh 1,500 pounds, with paws a foot wide and savage teeth. They are the unchallenged master predators in the harshest environment on Earth. A full-grown bear slaughtered in her den is far outside the ordinary.

Amstrup and his team returned by snowmobile. The dead female had multiple wounds to her neck and head, and the snow was stained by heavy arterial bleeding. Her skull had been pierced by a long tooth that slammed into her brain. Her hindquarter, belly, and mammaries were partially eaten.

Inside the den, Amstrup found two tiny cubs, each weighing less than five pounds. Both were dead, suffocated by the thick snow of the ruined cave. A single set of massive footprints led directly to the den. The footprints followed a typical hunting pattern—the stalker meandered around in a wide arc, then beelined for the spot where the mother and cubs were resting. There was only one explanation for this carnage: the bear and her cubs had been killed by another polar bear.

Cannibalism is not normal polar bear behavior. Seals are easier to catch and their meat has more calories per pound than bear meat. But over the course of that single season, Amstrup witnessed two additional instances of cannibalism. Having never seen anything like this, he was shocked to stumble across three separate incidents in one year. But as he spoke to colleagues, he found that cannibalism was becoming more common. In the Svalbard Archipelago, 450 miles north of Norway, three small cubs had been found dead inside their den. Although polar bears sometimes kill each other, these were the first recorded instances in which the killing took place at the supposedly safe haven of a den.

The past decade has been particularly difficult for polar bears. The summers of 2002, 2003, and 2004 saw a sharp increase in ice-free water. Between 1987 and 2003, scientists saw 12 polar bears swimming in open water, miles out from the edge of the pack ice. But in 2004 alone, scientists saw 10 bears swimming in open water, several as far as 110 miles offshore. Even more alarming, scientists found four polar-bear carcasses floating in the sea; they had apparently drowned while attempting to swim from one ice floe to the next. Never before had scientists seen even a single drowned bear. On land, the scientists found that half the bears were lean or emaciated. In western Hudson Bay, near the town of Churchill, Manitoba, a 2007 study told a grim tale: in less than 20 years, the local bear population had plummeted from 1,194 to 935, a decline of more than 20 percent. Around the Arctic, the pattern was consistent, and scientists were building the case that polar bears were the first in a long series of future calamities attributable to global warming.

Amstrup, who had written many of the papers detailing the bears’ precipitous decline, was beginning to understand the carnage; the polar bears were turning to cannibalism because they were starving to death.

Or at least that’s how it was reported.

I DIDN’T END UP IN POLAR-BEAR COUNTRY BY ACCIDENT. I went because I wanted to become a hero of the environmental movement. Ten years after amassing a handful of environmental-science degrees, I realized that the sum total of my contribution to conservation was that I had the good sense to feel really guilty about the low gas mileage on my minivan. I’d certainly been preachy enough about global warming and other catastrophes, but it was all so theoretical that I found myself suffering from a severe case of disaster fatigue. So I did what any sensible man would do: I took a leave of absence from my job, pulled my kids out of school, and moved the entire family to the edge of the Canadian Arctic. My plan was to bring the apocalypse home by writing a mournful elegy for the polar bears, which would quickly establish me as the heir to Rachel Carson/John Muir/Edward Abbey. Easy.

My own immortality aside, the stakes surrounding polar bears were ratcheting up quickly. By 2008, the fight to have polar bears listed under the Endangered Species Act was in full swing, and both the left and the right latched onto polar-bear science as a proxy war for everything having to do with climate, energy, and the limits of federal power.

Tell me where you stand on polar bears and I can probably guess where you come down on abortion and gun control. I grew up near Berkeley. I compost my table scraps, and yet … after months of research and a whole lot of time spent being much too cold, I was having trouble writing the book I’d planned. Some scientists were telling me that the conventional wisdom was wrong, some were spinning way too hard to tell me it was right, and absolutely everyone was using the polar bear as the greatest marketing gimmick ever invented. Polar bears, for their part, weren’t dying off nearly as quickly as I needed them to in order to establish myself as the Oracle of Doom.

In the fall, Churchill, Manitoba, is overrun with polar bears waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay; come the November freeze-up, the bears head out and disappear. For six weeks in autumn, this little town of 900 people becomes a world-class ecotourism destination, as 10,000 visitors descend on the slightly shell-shocked local populace. But in summer, with most bears not yet resident within city limits, there’s little reason to visit. In the hot months, the bears bed down, wallowing in the cool of Wapusk National Park, an inhospitable jumble of tundra, bogland, and thick willows 30 miles east of town.

Whereas other bears are omnivorous, polar bears feed almost exclusively on meat, seal blubber in particular. Hudson Bay seals don’t come ashore, so the bears go onto the ice to find them. But sea ice is a winter thing. After gorging all winter and into the spring, the bears withstand steady starvation in summer and fall. During the late stages of the fast, which lasts up to five months, bears drop about two pounds a day.

And that’s why a loss of ice is so problematic. Each Celsius degree of temperature increase means one more ice-free week of summer. In one week of hunting, a female bear catches an average of one and a half seals. This translates into more than 48 pounds of blubber that the bear can store for the lean months. As winter’s onset gets delayed, what should be a time of getting fatter has become a time of increasing desperation. Because of nutritional stress, female bears are now less likely to have triplets; the energy demands of raising so many cubs are simply too great. Even with smaller litters, fewer youngsters are surviving to adulthood. There’s no better way to destroy a population than to decimate its youth.

Of course, not everyone believes the situation is dire. The summer of 2008 was colder than previous years, causing skeptics to crow that warming was a myth. Climate scientists countered that in 2008 the Arctic still had significantly less ice than the average amount 30 years prior. One thing everyone agreed on was that whenever you talked about warming, you had to show a picture of a polar bear. Otherwise, it was hard to get people excited about ice without crushing it in a blender and adding tequila.

Yet neither side of the screaming match really mentioned that it wassummer sea ice that was shrinking; nobody was predicting ice-free wintersanytime soon. And, at least in Churchill, polar bears had been living through ice-free summers for as long as anybody could remember.

Having gone to Churchill on the assumption that polar bears were one missed meal away from extinction, I was surprised to find that worldwide population numbers were confusing and controversial. In 1965, a consortium of polar-bear specialists reported that the global population had been hunted down to near extinction—as few as 5,000 animals worldwide according to some sources. And yet by 1990 an esteemed polar-bear researcher named Ian Stirling felt comfortable categorically stating that polar bears were not endangered. Zoom up to the present and there seems to be a consensus that between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears are spread across the five polar nations. And yet Stirling himself has done an about-face and is now one of the chief proponents of the view that bear populations are in a freefall.

Actual data is hard to come by—polar bears live in cold places with bad access to cozy university towns—and surveying them is time-consuming and expensive. Subpopulation by subpopulation, the numbers are all over the place. Near Greenland, one subpopulation grew to nearly two and a half times the size it had been in the 1970s; one group in the extreme north of Hudson Bay had been stable or moderately improving since the early 2000s; and in the Beaufort Sea of Alaska, Amstrup was suggesting that the polar bears could be entirely gone by 2050. About half of the subpopulations hadn’t even been studied enough for anybody to make any predictions at all. In western Hudson Bay, near Churchill, a bitter fight was being waged in the media between rival camps, one who said the subpopulation had declined by 22 percent over the course of 17 years, and another who said the population had grown enough to allow for a big increase in trophy hunting.

“You can’t come with me.”

“I won’t be any trouble, I promise,” I said.

“You can’t come with me.” At long last I was talking to Steven Amstrup, and it was not going well. My stalker-esque number of voice mails and e-mails had been met with nothing but silence. When I finally caught him in person, he sounded deeply annoyed, as if I were yet another in a long string of people who wanted something. “I’ll pay my own way, I’ll charter a helicopter, I’ll work for you for free—just please let me come along next time you do a bear survey.”

“It’s simply not possible,” he said.

“Well, if there’s ever any way …”

“There won’t be,” he cut me off. “Good luck.” I felt like I was begging an old girlfriend to take me back after she’d already gotten married and had twins with a new guy.

I wanted Amstrup badly. He wasn’t a musty academic, but a sort of Indiana Jones of the wildlife biology world. In his resumé he had stated flatly: “I am the senior polar bear specialist in the U.S. Federal Government.” He was based in Alaska but traveled the world, penning countless papers.

Whenever anybody needed a prediction about the future of polar bears, Amstrup was the crystal ball into which they gazed. One minute he’d be publishing papers dense with statistics, and the next he’d be chatting with a television host, detailing the crisis in calm, measured tones. He was never hysterical and always struck the right balance between jargon and a heartfelt appeal to humanity’s better impulses. It didn’t hurt that he was tall and better-looking than anybody with a PhD has a right to be. With sandy-blond hair, a square jaw, and broad shoulders, no wonder the cameras loved Amstrup. To this day, he remains the only person I’ve ever met who can look suave while wearing thermal underwear and a hat with chinstraps.

Amstrup wasn’t the only polar-bear scientist in the world, and I quickly learned that he was not alone in his desire to blow me off. Getting a polar-bear scientist to return your calls is as easy as convincing Mick Jagger to headline your Labor Day picnic. Two in particular—Amstrup and Stirling—formed a radioactive nucleus that I simply could not penetrate. Part of the problem was that there just weren’t many of these guys to choose from. They were deluged by media requests, savaged by skeptics, and put under the sort of public scrutiny that most ecologists never face. I started to refer to the group as the Heavy Hitters, a secretive cabal of ecological geniuses. One ecologist friend of mine lamented that the big-mammal guys rake in grant money while she has to struggle for every dollar for her research on salamanders.

Well, duh.

Finally, somebody asked if I’d talked to a population ecologist named Robert Rockwell who was based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In fact, I’d never even heard of him. My initial search was unpromising; Rockwell’s website had a tribute to the heroes of 9/11 and an enormous list of publications with titles like “Effects of Declining Body Condition on Gosling Survival in Mass-Banded Lesser Snow Geese.” But according to my source, Rockwell had spent more than 40 summers in the bear-heavy tidal marshes east of Churchill. Supposedly, he’d had more polar-bear encounters than all the other researchers put together. The Heavy Hitters had already rejected me … so how much worse could it be to get stiffed by an expert on the sexual habits of geese?

THE RADIO ON MY HIP CRACKLED, but the static made it impossible to pick out anything specific. The bugs in my ears didn’t help either. I’d splashed my face and hair with pure DEET bug repellent, but it had no effect other than to give the black flies a caustic aftertaste as they committed suicide against the back of my throat. In the distance, a man stood on the roof of a building that looked as if it had fallen from the sky into the middle of a river. The river, called the Mast, flowed through Wapusk Park, and was unlike any river I’d seen before; it was impossible to tell where the water ended and the land began. Clumps of ragged grass sprouted from the muck, cutting the waterway into a thousand braided channels. In most places, the water was less than a foot deep and flowed so slowly that when the wind picked up, the current seemed to change direction. The highest natural feature in miles was the top of my head. The man on the rooftop waved his arm as he called on the radio, repeating a garbled message about a bear and the need to be careful.

Standing next to me in the water was Rockwell, who, much to my amazement, had answered his office phone on the first ring. After a bit of back-and-forth, he invited me to join him at a remote research camp outside Churchill to see what was going on with polar bears. Just a few thousand dollars’ worth of airfare and helicopter charters later, there I was.

Rockwell—who insisted I call him Rocky—held his radio aloft and spun like a homing beacon until the signal became clear. This operation was made more difficult by the shotgun slung over his shoulder. Face and hands uncovered, Rocky had no patience for bug jackets or other such sissy accoutrements. “You’ve got a bear to the south of camp a bit,” the radio announced, “He’s sniffing around. Looks like maybe a subadult.”

“Cool!,” Rocky responded, with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He holstered his radio and untangled the strap of his shotgun, a Remington 870 pump action with the words For Law Enforcement Only etched onto the side.

Rocky chattered on about geese. To my untrained (and decidedly bear-phobic) eye, he seemed completely unconcerned about being on the ground with a bear—and possibly many more—lurking in the shallows nearby. But this was, I hoped, probably just the result of confidence. Birds, bears, blades of grass—to Rocky they were all just happy little links in the circle of life. Rocky had the skill and experience to be calm, I, on the other hand, was feeling like bait.

“A million and a half geese coming up the Mississippi and Central flyways,” he said, ignoring me. He pulled out a bottle of deet and dabbed the poison on himself like a socialite applying Chanel. “Just imagine that … a million and a half!”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I read that in one of your papers,” I said. “I wonder if that bear’s still where he was a minute ago.” As the wind shifted, beginning to blow from our backs and toward the bear’s nose, my mind turned to the pork-chop sandwich in my backpack. “He must be getting a pretty good whiff of us right now,” I said. I edged away from Rocky in the direction of camp, hoping I could maybe get him moving.

“Oh, by the way,” Rocky said, looking at a bird skeleton he’d found. “Don’t get too far ahead of me, because the bears just love to hide out on these little islands.” I climbed out of the water onto a tuft of grass the size of a VW Bug. Suddenly, an eider flopped out of the bushes in a tumble of flailing wings and aggrieved squawks. I jumped 10 feet in the air while Rockwell chortled.

Eventually we reached the camp, known for some reason as Nestor Two, which was ringed by an electric fence. I grasped the plastic handle of the gate and stepped over the bottom wire, dripping water onto the electrified coils. To say that Nestor Two was on an “island” would be generous. Really it was more like a dirty lump smaller than a football field. About half a dozen buildings were scattered at haphazard angles. The entire place had a postapocalyptic feeling of isolation and despair, and the hot fence completed the prison-camp ambiance. I followed Rocky along a series of wooden pallets and broken stretches of boardwalk sunk into the pernicious mud. He scampered up a ladder, and as I scrambled to secure my footing, Rockwell straddled the peaked roof and raised a pair of binoculars. “Yup, there he is,” he said.

A few hundred yards away, a polar bear moved from left to right over broken ground. His white fur stood out against the green islands, but when he slipped into the water, he disappeared. There wasn’t a patch of snow in sight, and still this immense white beast was impossible to get a bead on. One moment I’d be looking right at him, watching him move smoothly over an island or through a pool, and a second later he’d vanish. In the water he didn’t splash, and on land he didn’t disturb a leaf. This guy was pure poise, utterly in control of every inch of his frame.

“Definitely a subadult,” Rocky said. “He looks good, too. Here, Fatty Fatty, heeeere, Fatty,” he cooed, as though calling a puppy. “I guess he didn’t get the memo.”

“Which memo is that?”

“The one that says he’s supposed to be starving.”

After I’d inhaled a herring sandwich—which tasted a lot like DEET—Rocky and I sat down to talk. In general, he wasn’t buying the idea that polar bears were doomed. His years of experience told him that the predictions the Heavy Hitters were making just didn’t add up. Not only was he seeing lots of bears, many of whom were in fine condition, but he’d also personally observed bears eating all sorts of different critters, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that suggested bears survive on seals alone.

Rocky’s arguments made sense in a vague and theoretical way—after all, some animals do have the ability to change their tactics when particular resources get scarce. Brown bears—the polar bear’s closest relative—can eat fish or berries or small mammals. But many animals can’t switch so easily; pandas eat bamboo and bamboo only, even if it means starving to death in a forest with hundreds of other plants. The fossil record is a tribute to failure: 99 percent of the species that have ever walked the Earth are now extinct. And there seems to be no glaring reason polar bears should be different. Still, new genetic evidence suggested that polar bears were 500,000 years older than previously thought, meaning they’d survived warm cycles before.

Lots of people complain about ideas they disagree with, but Rocky had a distinct plan of action. Not only was he going to prove that the polar-bear diet was more diverse than generally thought, but he was also going to create a new and possibly more comprehensive method for counting bears. These were big tasks, but he wasn’t taking on the Heavy Hitters by himself: his allies included a PhD candidate named Linda Gormezano and Quinoa, her Dutch shepherd. Quinoa came from a long line of police dogs but hadn’t quite made the cut. Instead, Linda had given him some very specialized training: Quinoa had the ability to sniff out polar-bear shit.

The general idea was that Linda would scoop up piles of scat and poke around to see what was inside. If it was full of goose feathers and fish bones then—voila!—so much for the theory that polar bears are picky eaters. In the course of grooming themselves, bears ingest a lot of hair, the roots of which contain genetic material. Also, a bit of gut lining is excreted with every bowel movement, and there’s DNA there too. By connecting different piles to specific animals, Linda was, in a way, “capturing” bears, and could theoretically do an estimate of bear abundance based on whose droppings she found where.

The mission for the next day was to collect as many samples of scat as possible. In Rocky and Linda’s grand scheme, this sort of collection could vastly augment what Amstrup and his colleagues were doing with tranquilizer darts and radio collars. Physically catching bears is expensive and dangerous—both for bears and for people. Whereas Amstrup could handle maybe five bears a day, poop is easy to come by. Linda and Quinoa could collect scores of samples in a day, maybe 600 in a season. This was crucial: the western Hudson Bay is home to the most closely monitored polar-bear population on Earth—the one that every politician and environmentalist and global-warming skeptic focuses on—and because the local population consisted of only about a thousand animals, a miscount of a few dozen bears could be enough to embolden or chastise one or another side of the debate over how the bears are doing.

We choppered to a promising spot, and Quinoa pounced on a pile as soon as we set to work. Eventually he alighted on a pile of scat that was full of feathers and tiny bones. “Snow geese. Bears love ’em,” Linda said. “About a quarter of the samples have some kind of waterfowl in them. And I’m not even talking about all the other stuff like eggs and berries and lemmings. Even caribou sometimes.”

This was all good stuff, but was this really how the seminal environmental battle of the 21st century was going to play out? The shooters versus the shitters? Did Muir ever find himself in a spot like this? Poking through poop might be one way to discover the truth, but getting anybody in the popular press to take you seriously was a more difficult battle.

BACK AT NESTOR TWO, Linda and Rocky couldn’t stop talking about the poop sequestered in the deep freezer. This data could be important information in the field, and—not trivially—a thumb in the eye of any polar-bear bigwig who had ever dismissed Rocky for being just a goose ecologist. Proving that polar bears had a large land-based diet might challenge the conventional wisdom about summer starvation. And if the genetic sampling worked, Linda and Rocky would have gone a long way toward an accurate population count that they could easily re-create year after year without the cost and risk of darting bears.

“I just want to get this straight,” I said later as Rocky prepared dinner, a massive Arctic char with onions and potatoes. “Are you telling me that you don’t think global warming is a problem for the bears? Are you saying that what they lose in seals they can make up for by eating geese and caribou and plants?”

“I have no idea!,” Rocky exploded. “That’s just it! But we have to be willing to ask that question. Which is exactly what Stirling won’t do. We submitted a paper once about polar bears eating goose eggs, and when Stirling read it he went absolutely nuts, saying, ‘Why don’t they come ashore earlier if the eggs are so good?’ and ‘Eggs aren’t going to save the bears.’ Well, that wasn’t what we were saying. We were saying that it’s possible that bears may be able to derive some nutritional benefit from eating something other than seals. And Stirling couldn’t accept even that limited hypothesis.”

So this was Rocky’s grand theory, I thought: as the Arctic warmed and the sea ice shrank, the bears might somehow manage to adapt. Rocky’s ideas were engaging, and he was a good salesman, but I wasn’t entirely buying it. Compared to a blubber-laden seal carcass, the occasional bony goose was hardly an adequate meal. Probably not quite enough to launch a wholesale revolution in the conventional wisdom regarding polar bears and global warming.

Later I found Rocky sitting heavily on his bunk in a room that was redolent of graduate students with limited access to shower facilities. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to come away from your time here thinking that we’re against these people. But there are things going on that affect polar bears that are not getting a full hearing. The polar bear is really special to me, but the Endangered Species Act and the commission of proper science are more important.”

“Take the 2050 thing, for example,” he said. “That’s just a huge problem.” Rocky was referring to a series of reports, sprawling over more than 400 pages, that Amstrup had written for the U.S. Geological Survey. One single factoid had been catnip to the press, reported and re-reported in every media outlet on Earth. One typical headline read “Scientists: Most Polar Bears Dead by 2050.” Rocky reiterated the ways in which he thought the Heavy Hitters had botched their methodology and made biased assumptions. I had no way of knowing whether Rocky was right, but I had faith in the scientific process to do the heavy lifting that I couldn’t do.

Surely some journal would weed out flimsy numbers and peer reviewers would reject shoddy work, right?

“That’s just it!,” Rocky thundered. “Those USGS papers aren’t science. They’re junk! And they should be thrown out.” Rocky felt that Amstrup and his colleagues had crossed the line from science to advocacy. “If this had been a bird or a fish, I guarantee you it would not have happened this quickly.”

When the stakes were this high, the science had to be beyond reproach or the whole enterprise would devolve into an orgy of finger-pointing and name-calling. (Sometimes it would anyway, but you had to do your best.) The right way to go forward was with lots of peer review by top-notch scientists who had no personal stake in the crisis du jour. The wrong way was manufacturing a rush job to satisfy antsy politicians.

Then again … big fucking deal.

Part of me felt that this was a lot of inside-baseball nonsense. The group of people who lost sleep over Amstrup’s methods pretty much extended only as far as the electric fence surrounding Nestor Two.

And so what if Amstrup was becoming “an advocate,” as Rocky put it? It wasn’t like he was being secretive about it. In his curriculum vitae for the USGS, he’d included a blurb titled “Life Mission”: “Engage science to reconcile the ever-enlarging human footprint on our environment with the needs of other species for that same environment—thereby assuring that prosperous people can live sustainably on healthy productive landscapes that provide their food, fiber, aesthetic, and recreational needs.” I’d never seen anything so loosey-goosey on a scientist’s CV, but at least he wasn’t shy about having crossed over from science to cheerleading. Polar bears could use a good advocate.

Rocky went on: “A scientist’s first commitment needs to be to science, not to the end result. A single-minded scientist leads us to the Dr. Mengele problem.”

“Sure, but the opposite extreme is just as bad,” I said. “A scientist can’t throw up his hands and say, ‘I’m just splitting the atom here, and I don’t have any idea what the military might use it for.’” This was getting ridiculous. He’d gone Nazi and I’d gone nuclear, which is the universal sign that a conversation has come unhinged.

But polar bears have a way of doing that to people. We both made a silent pact to chill. “But to say that they’re all going to be extinct in 2050?” Rocky said. “Come on. No scientist would believe that. There will come a day when Amstrup will regret having said that.” Rocky took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “And what happens if the bears in the Beaufort Sea are not extirpated by 2050?,” he continued. “And then what if something else goes wrong and some other species is more at risk? Will people listen to any of us then?”

AROUND THAT TIME, polar bears transitioned from being merely interesting to being the subject of an outright frenzy. Al Gore’s movie, a re-creation of his favorite moments on PowerPoint, had its most dramatic moment with an animation of a drowning polar bear.

Amstrup’s projection of near extinction by 2050 was getting huge press. His observations of cannibalism were an even bigger deal. Paramount made a wretched pseudodocumentary about polar bears, narrated by the noted Arctic researcher Queen Latifah.

The explosion in interest wasn’t random, and it wasn’t solely driven by Amstrup’s dire predictions. In January 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that polar bears might need protection under the Endangered Species Act. The political appointees who led the agency had one year to make the decision.

The deadline came and went. George Bush’s Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, delayed and deferred, while the environmental community fumed. The world looked to the United States for guidance; Canada, home to the vast majority of the polar bears, put off its “special status” decision, waiting to see what the Americans would do. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, criticizing Kempthorne’s refusal to testify on the issue, said that his absence was “a slap at the American people who care about this.” Republican Senator John Warner committed conservative apostasy by agreeing with Boxer. “I think we have an obligation toward this extraordinary animal,” he said. “It’s America’s panda bear, and all Americans are in love with it.”

Two issues were at play, one regional and one global. The first was a proposed oil and gas lease in the Chukchi Sea, the icy Alaskan waters where most American polar bears live. Oil companies had their eyes on a 29-million-acre bit of ocean said to contain 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Listing the polar bear as threatened would spark endless litigation. Delaying the decision by a few months could get the mineral rights sold before the pesky bears got their paws all over the paperwork.

The second issue was far more monumental: up to that point, no species had been put on the Endangered Species list as a result of climate change. Most endangered species can be saved by stopping logging in a particular forest or by scuttling a proposed dam. Resetting the thermostat of the entire Earth is trickier.

The months wore on. In the interim, the oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea sailed through. The delay had worked, and environmentalists were apoplectic.

Until finally, in May 2008, Kempthorne, a square-jawed Idaho Republican, announced his decision. Standing beside a giant picture of a polar bear, Kempthorne launched into his press conference. “Today I am listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.” He even showed satellite images of shrinking sea ice and talked about taking the advice of scientific experts. What a shock! This was actually going to go the right way! This was the first time that climate change had ever been cited as a causative factor in an endangered-species listing. The U.S. government had been forced to sit up and pay attention.

But any elation that environmentalists felt was short-lived. Kempthorne continued: “While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting … That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn’t abused to make global-warming policies.” He went on to state that the listing could not be used to limit drilling in any way. In a masterstroke of bureaucratic doublespeak, he stated that polar bears needed protection … and then ruled out any action that might actually accomplish that.

Years of litigation had left the United States in exactly the same place it had started out. Polar bears were dying, or maybe they weren’t. Greenhouses gases were the cause, or maybe they weren’t. The government would do something about it, or maybe it wouldn’t. The bears remained oblivious to their celebrity.

ONE WINTER AFTERNOON I stopped by the makeshift Churchill office of a nonprofit dedicated to protecting polar bears. The place swirled with activity, and at one point a publicist for a major environmental organization sat down next to me. “It’s just so sad,” she said, pushing her lips into a long pout. “They all look so skinny that it’s hard to look at them.” A few minutes later, her chair was filled by a biologist with the Manitoba conservation department. “The bears look good,” he mused. “I haven’t seen them this fat in years.”

Experts aside, most of the tourists who traveled to Churchill had written the narrative of their trip long before they arrived. You don’t necessarily go to Churchill because you want to see healthy, happy bears. But one glaring problem with the standard doomsday scenario was that very few of the locals wanted anything to do with it.

One night I sat down with a park ranger I had gotten to know. “So what do you think about global warming?” I asked. He scratched his head and yawned. Then he told me his method for dealing with the constant crush of media attention in his little corner of the world. “I just try to be as honest as I can,” he said. “They ask you what changes have you seen. And you know what? I haven’t seen much change. I really haven’t. Except for maybe the falls seem to be a little bit later. I hear it from some local people, too. They say, ‘We don’t get the winters we used to.’ Ah, whatever. You don’t remember three fucking years ago, how harsh the weather was. All I know is that the bears still seem to leave pretty much on time, mid-November. I always see some stragglers, some of them who stay behind for whatever reason. I don’t know why the bears do what they do, and I’m not sure the scientists do either.

“I’m not saying that everything is fine and that there’s no such thing as climate change. Not at all. What I’m saying is that all of these scientists and do-gooders and TV people—when they talk about making changes and ‘saving the polar bears’”—he made little air quotes with his fingers—“it might be as much about themselves as about the bears. As long as people are around, you’re not going to stop them from taking planes, taking trains, taking ships, driving in cars, driving trucks, and you might as well throw in space shuttles as well.”

Despite the prearranged news narrative, there was a plausible argument to be made that all was not lost. Sure, Rocky was in the minority, but he wasn’t a crackpot. And the gaps he’d shown in the armor of the Heavy Hitters were real. I wondered how many people on the tourist buses that roll across the tundra around Churchill knew that polar bears were probably doing better today than 30 years earlier. And how many of them understood that according to even the most dire of predictions, the polar-bear population might fall only to its 1950s level?

That would be sad, sure, but the Arctic would go on being the Arctic and the remaining polar bears would hunt and eat and mate and live and die as best they could, just like now, just like they did 100,000 years ago.

Uncertainty existed, but you couldn’t discuss it in tasteful circles.

I’M AN ENVIRONMENTALIST AT HEART, but what I’d found in the Hudson Bay had gotten in the way of my well-laid plans. I needed to talk with the Heavy Hitters—I wanted to be reconvinced of what they had to say. I didn’t like admitting it, but since my time with Rocky, I’d become a bit of a skeptic: maybe the hype had outrun the reality. And so I found myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to believe the very worst. In that era of faith-based decision making and gag orders on scientists, my personal biases weren’t very deeply hidden. I wanted the Heavy Hitters to be calm, convincing, and right. I wanted to know that the situation was critical, that polar bears were on their way out.

And then, through the magic of bullshitting my way into the right place at the right time, I was granted a sudden audience with Steven Amstrup and Ian Stirling as they blew through Churchill on a media blitz.

If my initial phone calls with the two men had been intimidating, meeting them in person was a hundred times more so. Amstrup was tall and angular, and the way he stared at me made me feel like I was being humiliated in front of the entire class. Stirling was smaller in stature, and warier; within the first two minutes he told me that he had “gained a bit of a reputation for being grumpy.” I couldn’t disagree.

I figured the best place to start was with what had led me—and everyone else—to the story in the first place: cannibalism. Amstrup’s paper had hit the world like a hammer. The idea that bears were so hungry that they were devouring each other was too horrifying to ignore.

And yet the intense focus on this single story bothered me. It wasn’t a controlled experiment, after all. It was only a frozen moment, an anecdote that came to represent the whole. I asked Amstrup whether he worried about the way the public ignored decades of research and focused on the one paper that had blood all over it.

He looked me over coolly and said, “The important thing with regard to those sorts of snapshots is—are they consistent with what we might expect to see in a changing environment where the animals are becoming nutritionally stressed?” He leaned back on the couch with his hands on his knees, looking like the statue of Lincoln on the National Mall. His voice was deep, and I felt that if I interrupted him he would smite me with a bolt of lightning.

“There’s no way that you could put your finger on it and say, ‘Well, that’s the fingerprint of climate change, or that’s caused by global warming.’ It happened that the sorts of observations that are reported in that paper were things we hadn’t seen before, and so they caught our attention. That doesn’t mean that they never happened before. It could have been that they happened out there and we just never observed it,” he continued, “ So it’s the kind of thing that’s consistent with what we might expect to see happening in the environment, but you can’t necessarily say that that’s the cause. And I think that we did a very good job in the paper of making that point. And in the subsequent interviews I think that we made that point very effectively. But it wasn’t always carried that way, and it wasn’t always translated that way into the general media.”

This was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear! I’d been worried that he’d recognized the graphic value of what he’d seen and had been exploiting it to make his point.

When I asked whether he was bothered by how the media used his findings, Amstrup’s response was pitch-perfect. “Scientific credibility suffers because of that,” he said. “The point is that you have to present it in a careful fashion and if the media takes it and embellishes it and spectacularizes it, then you lose the scientific connection … and that’s really critical to people like us. We have to maintain that.” His measured tones and eminently reasonable ideas were a cool rebuke to anyone who ever said that the threat to polar bears was overblown. Including me.

Amstrup reassured me that the data collection and analysis had not been hurried in order to get the polar bear listed as threatened; Stirling described lab tests that proved that although bears might eat berries, they weren’t metabolizing them for nutritional benefit. And when Amstrup described the care he took in his statistical modeling, I came away assured that the population projections were as ironclad as could be hoped for in this inexact field.

But what went furthest toward restoring my faith was that Amstrup never used the word zero. The specter of zero polar bears, of complete extinction like dinosaurs and dodo birds, is the extremist fantasy that thrills every television producer looking for a heartstring-tugging top story. And the environmental groups have their radar tuned to the exact same frequency; “significant population decline” is a snoozer, but zero can get bleeding hearts from coast to coast to open their wallets.

When I asked Amstrup point blank whether the polar bears would go extinct, he was quick to demur. The consensus was that for a long time there would be ice somewhere in the high Arctic. And where there is ice, there will be bears. Not very many bears, but not complete extinction either. “There are likely to be small pockets of bears,” Amstrup said, in “places where walrus are going to increasingly haul out on land as the sea ice retreats. … Some polar bears will figure that out. So there may be some small pockets of bears that figure out some kind of an equilibrium where they can survive the ice-free period. But it’s not very consistent with what we know about polar bears to suggest that whole populations of bears … are likely to survive in the terrestrial environment.”

Order had been restored to my crunchy liberal universe. I still thought that Rocky made sense when he spoke about the integrity of the scientific process, but these guys weren’t charlatans—my word, not Rocky’s—and they weren’t purposefully overselling their research.

“This was a good interview,” Amstrup said as he unfolded his long frame from the couch. “It’s obvious that you’ve done your homework.” It was good that he felt that way; I’d only spent the last year neglecting my family in order to read about polar bears, global warming, and nothing else. Talking to Amstrup had been a perfect capper to my months of research. And the best part was that he hadn’t come close to saying that every last polar bear was about to die.

Which is why I was so surprised to see Amstrup and Stirling on TV the next day.

The on-camera science reporter was a cheerful roly-poly fellow who never emerged from an immense canary-yellow parka. The film was classic Arctic stuff, all blowing snow and near-catastrophe on the tundra. He actually narrated one segment from the back of a moving dogsled. None of that was particularly upsetting; television is television, after all. But when Amstrup and Stirling came on-screen for their star turns, I was shocked by what they said. The anchorman assumed his most portentous voice, describing a bleak tableau of starving polar bears, despite the fact that this had been a relatively fat year. “They’re under stress,” he said, his voice heavy, before turning to “Dr. Steven Amstrup,” who has “joined me on our Tundra Buggy to explain the evidence behind the decision to list the polar bear as threatened. Evidence like cannibalism.”

Cut to Amstrup, handsome and grave, wind in his hair, the Voice of Truth.

“Large adult males that were clearly stalking, killing, and eating other bears,” he said. “So it wasn’t a situation where bears were having a fight over a mate or something like that and one of them was killed in the process and the other bear decided, ‘Well, as long as I’ve got a dead bear here I’ll go ahead and eat it.’ It was actual stalking and killing and then consuming other animals. That sort of thing we just hadn’t seen in all the years I’d been there.”

Wait a second. Hadn’t Amstrup just finished telling me that the cannibalism thing was getting too much play by a bloodthirsty media? Although I knew he hadn’t approved the lead-in claiming that cannibalism and the endangered-species listing were directly connected, he wasn’t a media naïf, either. He must have known that phrases like stalking and killing would incite any producer’s most lurid instincts. At the very least, he wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to tamp down the hype he’d just been decrying. The camera cut to a patch of bloodstained snow. Although I could tell the gore was from some kind of scientific bear handling, few viewers would fail to connect the blood with the word cannibalism in the broadcast.

Amstrup continued: “The projections that we developed last year, based on the data that we have and the climate models projecting what the future of sea ice is going to be … those projections suggest that polar bears are going to be absent from the Beaufort Sea of Alaska by the middle of this century.” Absent. There it was: the zero.

I had his report in front of me, and I flipped to the introduction: “Projections using minimal ice levels forecasted potential extirpation in this ecoregion by year [2050], whereas projections using maximal ice levels forecasted steady declines but not extirpation by year [2100].” Conditional and dispassionate—not exactly the same thing as zero. The paper was a model of restraint, pointing out uncertainties and the potential for alternative outcomes. The possibility of eradication referred to a specific subpopulation—the southern Beaufort Sea group—rather than all bears, but it’s not like the average TV viewer has a tight grasp of circumpolar geography.

Neither Amstrup nor the anchor bothered to point out that the population whose imminent death they were lamenting was almost 2,000 miles away from the bears they were currently filming. Nothing was said about the subpopulations of polar bears that were holding steady or increasing.

When Stirling came on camera looking grumpy and annoyed, I threw my hands up in frustration. “This is the most serious thing that has happened in recorded history,” he said.

Upset as I was about Stirling and Amstrup resorting to cannibalism in front of the cameras, I understood. Hard science is an impossibly tough sell. From years of doing media, Amstrup had to have known that he’d have only a few minutes to make his case. And nothing sells like blood. I had to admit that I’d wanted the cannibalism story to be the beginning and the end of it, too. It was too good a disaster metaphor to ignore. I’d even used it on the very first page of my book.

I wanted the polar-bear story to be simple and stark. But the more I learned, the more melodramatic it became, with everyone slipping into roles that were far too easy to caricature. (In a development that probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, a few years after our interview, Steven Amstrup left government employment and joined the senior management team of Polar Bears International, the premier polar-bear advocacy organization.) Yet despite the opposing viewpoints, everybody had one thing in common: the skeptics, the cynics, the starry-eyed idealists—they all wanted polar bears to thrive. Every single person I met said they wanted the best for the bears, and without exception I believed every single one of them.

WHY DO POLAR BEARS MATTER SO MUCH? If you want to get technical about it … they don’t. If every single polar bear disappeared, you might be surprised by how little you’d care.

The hole in the ozone layer will give you skin cancer, and mercury in tuna fish will make your kids stupid. But if every polar bear on Earth disappeared, the effect might be impossible to detect. It’s not as if polar bears are the bottom of the food chain and every other species would collapse without them. Although Arctic foxes rely on what they can scavenge from bear-killed seals, it pretty much ends there. And we care about foxes even less than we care about bears.

The vast majority of people on Earth will never see a polar bear, no matter what happens. According to Amstrup and friends, the western Hudson Bay population has declined by 22 percent. But if you live in London or New York or even Winnipeg, the difference between 1,000 bears and 100 bears isn’t really a difference at all. We’ve always taken it on faith that there are any polar bears to begin with.

The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson wrote: “We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” But our survival has long since ceased to be the issue, at least in a hand-to-paw-combat sort of way. We carry laptops instead of spears, but we’re not so far removed from our past that fear and fascination with bears has completely evolved out of us.

And what we notice when we stare at these bears is that they’re a lot like us. They’re smart and tough and they nurture their young. They’re cute and cuddly and unpredictably ferocious. They’re the top of the food chain, they’re without natural predators. This isn’t some red-legged frog, warty and swamp-dwelling, that faces annihilation. This is a master predator, a carnivore, with hands and feet and hair. This bear is the boss. So when we think about polar bears going extinct, it’s not their absence that worries us; it’s our own. And because it’s our fault—and because it may be our future—the bears have become the most important animals on earth. After ourselves, of course. ★

This article is adapted from Zac Unger’s new book, Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows, published this February by Da Capo Press/The Perseus Book Group. Unger’s first book was Working Fire: The Making of a Fireman. Visit his website for more information.

By Zac Unger


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