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When polar bears attack: How climate change is creating a new breed of unlikely killers

As the ice caps melt, polar bears are losing their natural habitats — and starvation is driving them to violence


Lindsay Abrams
November 23, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)

In the summer of 2013, seven American hikers set off on a two-week expedition through Canada's Arctic tundra. The plan was to experience a pristine landscape rarely seen by humans and, if they were lucky, catch a glimpse of the region's polar bears. They went prepared with flares and electric fences -- enough, they assumed, to protect them from the massive predators. It wasn't.

To say any more would be to spoil the suspenseful, true-life story that Sabrina Shankman recounts in her e-book "Meltdown: Terror at the top of the world," which was produced with InsideClimate News. You can read an excerpt here. (An accompanying documentary series produced with Vice Media will be premiering later this month.)

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Just as terrifying as the details of the attack is the other story Shankman tells: that of the rapidly melting Arctic and its accompanying loss of sea ice, habitat to the polar bears, which scientists warn are facing extinction. Without the ice, the polar bears are unable to hunt seals, their main source of food. Starving and stuck on land, they venture inland in search of alternative food sources -- because of that, experts believe that the number of dangerous interactions between the bears and human populations are set to increase dramatically. "After all," Shankman writes, "to a starving bear, a human is just meat."

All that would be reason enough, for me, to avoid polar bear country entirely. But what's happening up north, of course, is but a magnified version of the changes taking place throughout the planet. As one scientist told Shankman, "What’s happening to the polar bears is what’s going to happen to us."

Salon spoke with Shankman about her book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell me how you found this story.

It came directly to us at InsideClimate News, through one of the guys on the trip, Larry Rodman. In the early fall of last year, after he’d been back for a while, he reached out to David Sassoon, our publisher, and had this crazy story of this trip that he’d been on. Around that time, I was starting to talk with David about coming onboard at ICN and he said, ”Yeah, and we’ve got this story we’d love for you to take on,” so that was kind of hard to say no to. As a journalist, you hear about these stories once in a blue moon where it’s just such an incredible survival adventure narrative but at the same time has such interesting depths that you can get into from a scientific and climate-change perspective.

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Did you know going into it that this was going to be about more than just a random attack that happened? That it would have the huge implications about what’s happening in the Arctic?

I knew from the start that it was going to have bigger implications, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the connections were going to be. For anyone in our field, if you hear about polar bears there’s this inherent connection to climate change. One thing I didn’t know, for instance, was what the polar bears in that specific region were dealing with, because a lot of the issues that polar bears are facing are future problems. There are some populations that are already dealing with declines: I saw you wrote about that report that came out earlier this week, and that’s further evidence of another group that’s really not doing well. But a lot of the bigger issues that biologists talks about, it’s what’s coming down the line for them.

It wasn’t until I really started working on the project that I realized that though the numbers are really good for the Davis Strait population, it’s actually starting to experience some of the early warning signs that come right before the decline in population -- like decreasing body condition and lower survival rates of cubs -- and that they had seen such a huge decrease in days of sea ice.

So are polar bear-human interactions definitely increasing? And if so, how much of that can we attribute to climate change?

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The biologists who are working on this are just really wrapping their arms around this right now. There’s a guy named James Wilder who I quote in the book who, until recently, was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. He’s been working on compiling the first-ever database of all these attacks because the problem is, the reporting is really shoddy even in places where it’s good -- Canada’s known for having better reporting. In the e-book I talk about all these incidents that weren’t in the database, I think because in some of these Inuit communities these incidents are almost part of life.

What James Wilder has found is that they are on the rise, and what other biologists like Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher and Steven Amstrup -- the big names in polar bear biology -- what they’ve been saying all along is that you’re going to see an increase in interactions as climate change progresses.

When I talked to James Wilder about it, I asked him, “Is this because of climate change? Is that why we’re on target for 35 incidents this decade when, in the past, it was more like 10?” And he said, "Maybe." That’s definitely one of the reasons it could be; it could also have to do with other things that we’re maybe not aware of yet, and that’s kind of the idea of classic scientist hedging. But you can’t definitively say anything except for the fact that it’s been projected for a long time that incidents like this would rise as climate change continues; climate change has continued; you’ve seen a lot of other indications of population stress in certain regions; and you’ve also seen an increase in attacks.

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Anecdotally, there also seem to be a number of indications that climate change is changing the region, that polar bears are popping up more. What did you observe when you traveled up there?

It was new to me -- I’d never been up that far north. But I was up there with the Vice crew and with Matt Dyer, the guy that got attacked. As opposed to what the group did a year earlier, we hired a couple of Inuit bear guards from the region. It was a brother and a sister, and it just so happened that they had grown up going to this exact same fjord every summer with their family, so they had really seen these changes. These are people who are in their 50s, maybe 60s, so what they had seen was a total change in the landscape. As the summers have gotten warmer, which is something they've noticed, you’ve seen the mountaintops change from grey and brown to green because there's all this growth happening now because the climate's changed. You also see mosquitos everywhere where in the past there weren’t mosquitos at all. Someone from Parks Canada told me they’ve had someone come to the park to study that exact phenomenon and ask why the bugs are there.

The other big thing they talk about other than polar bears is the change in the ice. It’s not just that it melts earlier and re-forms later, it’s that in between there’s a lot more increased variability. Talking to some of the Inuit, they have all these stories about people who crashed through the ice. They’ve lived in the area forever and they just know, on this date you should be fine to ride your snowmobile across the ice -- and you can no longer trust that. It’s like, in the U.S., all of a sudden not being able to trust the highway.

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And then there’s the polar bears. Maria Merkuratsuk, who’s one of the bear guards, told me that when she was a kid she didn’t see any polar bears. By the time she was 8 or 9 she might see one every now and then but it was a very rare occurrence, whereas now it’s really rare to go to that area and not see a polar bear. I saw, I think, 16 bears when I was up there.

One of the really striking things in your account of the attack was how the bears didn’t always seem to respond to flares or other warnings from humans -- they were pretty aggressive. Is it possible to know whether it’s just their nature to be fearless, or how true the narrative is that they’re becoming starving and desperate?

One thing to be really clear about is that we don’t know why that bear attacked Matt. You can never associate an individual attack with climate change; it’s just impossible to do. We can talk about it in the context of it being part of a trend, but not, like, “Climate change made this bear starve and so it tried to eat this guy.” Also, this polar bear did actually respond to the flare, fortunately. That seems to be the one thing that actually works. The problem was that they thought their electric fence was going to work and it didn’t.

Polar bears are apex predators. They are huge animals that have evolved to solely eat meat. They have not evolved to graze on berries and climb trees like black bears -- they kill things and they eat them. I don’t think you could say, either way, if the bear wasn’t deterred by them yelling at it to go away in the way that a grizzly might be because of climate change or if it’s just the nature of a polar bear. I don’t think you could say that.

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But a lot of media accounts talk about starving bears coming ashore, that kind of thing.

Yeah. When we interviewed Steven Amstrup, what he was explaining is that when biologists use the words “declining polar bear populations,” what they’re talking about is starving bears. They're talking about bears that aren’t getting the nutrition they need to survive. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to them as starving bears, it’s more just everyday jargon, I guess.

Is there a worry that as the threat of human-bear interactions increases, that that could lead to more bears being hunted or killed by humans, putting further stress on these populations?

Canada does allow for hunting of polar bears in traditional native communities. There’s a quota system for hunting bears, and a couple of those quotas went up this year. Whether there’s going to be more people out revenge hunting polar bears... I haven’t heard anyone talk about that. In these Inuit communities like Churchill and others near the water that are seeing a major increase in the number of bears coming into town, I think you do run the risk of having more bears getting shot because protecting human life over a polar bear would probably take precedent in many of those towns.

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They also have government-appointed positions in some of these areas where they manage the bears. I talked to one guy with that job on the Hudson Bay, and they have ways to actually escort “problem bears,” as they call them, out of town. They almost use body language to usher this polar bear through the middle of town until they can get it out to the outskirts and scare it away, whether it’s by firing warning shots or flying a helicopter over it. There are things they’ve figured out how to do to only have to shoot a bear as a last resort.

The more bears are driven further inland and further into communities where they’re going to have run-ins with humans, of course that’s going to raise the risk that more bears might get shot because of it.

It sounds more like people are trying to figure out how to live with the bears.

As best they can. What choice do they have?

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That’s one of the things you try to emphasize in the book: that this is a tangible effect of climate change that’s happening right now. But for someone reading it from home, it's still kind of a far-off threat. What is your argument for why readers should be paying attention to this, for why it concerns everyone?

Again, to go back to Steven Amstrup, when we asked him that question his answer was that we should care about polar bears because what’s happening to the polar bears is what’s going to happen to us. They are just the thin edge of the wedge of climate change, and it just so happens that they’re feeling these impacts right now, whereas some of the impacts for us might be coming later. When we asked what it will mean for humans if the polar bears disappear, he said by the time the polar bears disappear, people aren’t going to care very much about polar bears -- because by then we’re going to be dealing with a whole host of other climate change-related issues.

I think that’s the way to understand it, to put it in the context of, the way my sources explain it, that this is an important issue on its own but it’s just part of the picture. It’s the canary in the coal mine, as a lot of the polar bear people like to call it.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not trying to make an argument, one way or the other, related to climate change. As a journalist, this is the stuff that comes up.

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Lindsay Abrams

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Animals Climate Change Editor's Picks Global Warming Polar Bears The Arctic

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