Polar Bear comes to investigate the camera cage on Buggy One. Gordon Point on the shores of Hudson Bay
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Say goodbye to Ontario’s polar bears.
Warmer weather will likely make it impossible for the iconic bears to survive on the shores of Hudson’s Bay in Ontario and Manitoba in 20 to 30 years, says the world’s best-known polar bear expert.
The warning should not be taken lightly, considering Ian Stirling has studied polar bears as a biologist and adjunct University of Alberta professor for 41 years — longer than anyone else in the field.
“It’s not speculation,” Stirling said in an interview Tuesday. “By the middle of the century, we’re likely to have lost two thirds of the world’s polar bears.”
While Stirling has little hope for the bears of Hudson’s Bay, he remains optimistic that Canadians can save the majestic species living farther north by taking action on climate change. Pulling out of Kyoto was a “great tragedy,” Stirling said, as a global agreement is essential to save the Arctic.
The loss of Arctic ice is the main threat to Canada’s southernmost ursus maritimuspopulations. An estimated 1,600 bears live in the region, according to the government.
The ice has disappeared at a rate of 10 per cent per decade since 1979, according to satellite images, Stirling said. That’s faster than most scientific models predicted.
“The kind of scary thing is that the real life situation is worse,” he said, noting that some criticize scientific modelling for being alarmist.
Since his first visit in 1970 to Churchill, Man., Canada’s polar bear hub for tourists and scientists alike, the ice has progressively melted earlier and frozen later.
Without ice floes, the bears have no platform from which to hunt their meal of choice — the ringed seal. Larger bears can snag the occasional walrus on land, but the entire population can’t get by without seals.
The most crucial feeding time for the bears is between early April and July when the ringed seals are young, unaware and easier to catch. Bears gain up to 70 per cent of their yearly energy during this period, so it can be deadly when it’s cut short by three weeks, Stirling said.
“Large carnivores don’t just lie down under a tree like an Arctic hare and die when they’re starving,” Stirling said. “They go searching for an alternate food source, and that’s mainly going to be human settlements.”
The majority of these hostile interactions happen in Churchill, where a polar bear jail has been set up to hold aggressive bears.
Canada is home to more than 60 per cent of the world’s estimated 25,000 polar bears. Studying these predators sheds light on the entire Arctic ecosystem, Stirling said.
“They’re a fantastic part of biodiversity of the planet,” he said. “If Canadians don’t care about what’s happening in the Arctic in general and polar bears in particular, then why should the rest of the world care?”
As part of the PolarBearsInternational.org lecture series, Stirling will speak at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $40.