Outpouring of Concerns Over the Starving Polar Bear Family

Posted Dec. 10th, 2010 by Daniel J. Cox

Mother and cub struggle to hold on in their arctic home

As expected, the video I recently released of a starving family of polar bears has raised lots of emotions. I have approved each and every comment in the prior post even though several were considerably off topic. However, like all of those who have voiced their sadness, I too was deeply emotional by the sight of this starving polar bear family.  Experiencing their plight  has motivated me even more to help the world understand how climate change is affecting polar bears and the arctic ecosystem–and to inspire people to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint and to let corporations and government officials know they want action on this issue.

Many of the comments relating to this family of polar bears are based around the idea of feeding them and without question that is a very understandable response. Believe me it went through my mind as well. It was extremely heart wrenching to shoot this footage. I was already rolling when the little cub went into convulsions and I’ve never had to keep my composure in any other situation so difficult to handle as this. On the subject of feeding them, it’s against the law to feed wild bears–and it’s a complicated subject. The following is the insight of one of the worlds leading polar bear authorities PBI Sr. Scientist Dr. Steven Amstrup on this topic.

Feeding wildlife is always a complicated issue.  There are places where winter supplemental feeding has helped deer and elk herds through the winter and avoided damage that those animals may otherwise have caused to fruit trees and other crops. Such animals, however, often become dependent on the supplemental food and may even alter their natural movement patterns to take advantage of food that otherwise was not there.  Then, if the feeding stops, these animals are in trouble.  Just like providing a feeder for birds, if you start the autumn feeding, you better feed throughout the winter or you are likely to contribute to large scale die-offs. In the case of polar bears it is even more complicated. The risks of concentrating bears where they otherwise would not be concentrated and the risks of bears associating food with people must be considered.  More importantly, the expense of doing anything at the scale that would provide population level assistance to bears also cannot be overlooked.  This is especially important when you consider the large greenhouse gas footprint that would result from any artificial feeding strategy that would benefit bears at the population level.  It is, after all, the human emissions of GHGs that is causing the current plight of polar bears.  To generate tons more CO2 in efforts to distribute food might offer short term relief but exacerbate the long term problem.  Ultimately, to save polar bears we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save their sea ice habitat, and it would be more beneficial to put our efforts into minimizing our GHG emissions.   It’s up to each of us to do our part to lower our carbon footprint and to let corporations and government officials know that we support action. Greenhouse gas mitigation along with the best possible wildlife management by local management authorities, rather than feeding is the best way to assure future survival of polar bears. At PBI, we have formed a sustainability alliance team involving experts from a variety of research and management organizations to develop the best possible ways to deal with and learn from compromised bears. Also, currently being constructed is the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre founded and  funded by the Assiniboine Park Conservancy/Polar Bears International that is expected to open this spring. This will be the world’s first rescue center for polar bears at risk. These are challenging times for polar bears and we all must do all we can to ensure that they survive for future generations.

Dr. Steven Amstrup

With the above issues in mind, Manitoba Conservation and Canada’s national park service have crafted an implemented laws against any and all feeding of polar bears. Quite simply there is nothing more appalling in the eyes of park officials and most other knowledgeable wildlife professionals and enthusiasts than a wildlife observer/photographer/filmmaker feeding any kind of bear. It’s not acceptable in any situation.

Finally, it should be noted that Polar Bears International and The Center for Biological Diversity are doing lots of things to help polar bears. The Center for Biological Diversity was actually directly responsible for getting polar bears added to the US Endangered Species list as a threatened species. That was a huge undertaking and they are now working to get the polar bear listed as an Endangered Species under the same law.

Polar Bears International has numerous programs that are directly responsible for helping polar bears. The first one that is in the process of coming online is what will be called the International Polar Bear Conservation Center (IPBCC) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This will be the worlds first rescue center for polar bears at risk.  The Assiniboine Park Conservancy and Polar Bears International are partnering on this project.

The IPBCC was my first thought when we originally saw this family of bears in trouble. But unfortunately the new center won’t be open until sometime next spring. These cubs would have been prime candidates for this facility. Additional programs that PBI is responsible for include PBI Sustainability Alliance, PBI Leadership Camps, PBI Arctic Ambassador Centers, PBI Project Polar Bear Contest, Planting Trees for Polar Bears, PBI Tundra Connections and PBI Field Ambassadors and Lectures. These are just a few of the things that Polar Bears International is doing for the benefit of the bears and the rest of all creatures on the planet including humans. One thing most people don’t understand is that Polar Bears are the equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. If polar bears eventually go extinct due to an environment they can’t adapt to fast enough why would humans be any less susceptible?

I’m writing this in Cancun Mexico where the most current Climate Change Talks are just winding down. From friends involved with the negotiations I‘m hearing that it has basically been a useless event and that we are headed further backwards on climate change issues.  Images such as those of the starving polar bear family may be just what people need to pull their heads out of the sand and acknowledge that we do have a big problem. Further down the line, who knows how far, the images you and your grand kids may witness could actually involve humans rather than bears. Unfortunately, sad but true.

Daniel J. Cox
12/10/2010 Cancun, Mexico

The following is an additional response from our friends at the Center for Biological Diversity

Thanks for your note. On the question of why no one did anything to try to save the bears, it is multi-faceted and heart-wrenching.  While Canada does an excellent job of managing the polar bears around Churchill to minimize conflict with people, their management policies are based on the idea that polar bears are wild animals in a national park. In general, if people feed polar bears the bears associate the people with food and ultimately they are shot if they approach other northern towns.  So the default is to let nature take its course.  I think in the past this has been good policy, but given what global warming has done, nature is no longer taking its natural course; it is taken a course we have set it on and polar bears are starving as a result.

So I think we have a responsibility to do more than just passively watch species suffer as a consequence.  Canada has a system set up for problem bears that wander into town (either relocate them or hold them in captivity until the ice forms), and Assiniboine Park Conservancy & Polar Bears International are also building a rescue center for orphaned cubs and starving bears, but they are not allowed to intervene when a mom is still with cubs out in the wild.

Also, by the time the mother and cubs were spotted by the filmmaker, it was likely too late for them.  Polar bears need seals with vast quantities of fat and calories to survive.  Even were it not illegal, neither the filmmaker nor the tourists had anything to feed them, and even had the wildlife officials had a response plan and sprung into action, it probably would have been too late.  The best hope was, at least until the cub went into seizures, that the ice would be forming within a few days and the mom could take her cubs out onto the ice and attempt to get them food.  Of course it didn’t work out that way.

I think this incident and the fact that lots of people will see it and are asking the same question as you will speed up the process of Canada (and the US in Alaska) developing policies of what to do about starving bears.  We have been pushing the US government to develop a recovery plan for the polar bear that will set up in advance a response for events like this, and that process that will hopefully save individual bears that are in trouble.

But the number of bears in this condition that will ever be spotted is very small compared to the number of bears that suffer the same fate in even more remote places where no people will ever see them. Polar bear habitat is so vast, remote, and inaccessible that it is infeasible to carry out any kind of supplemental feeding program or rescue program on a scale sufficient to save all the bears that would need it.

Thus, the only real solution to prevent this kind of suffering is to reduce greenhouse pollution, and slow and then stop the warming of the Arctic.  The solutions exist to do this, we just lack the political will to implement them.  We already have successful laws on the books like the Clean Air Act that can effectively achieve deep and rapid pollution reductions, but these laws are under attack.  I’ve been at the international climate negotiations for the past two weeks, and the U.S. is still blocking progress here due to the politics back home.  We need to build more support at home for real action.  The good news is that the things we need to do to cut greenhouse pollution will also make the world a better place, but until we have more people demanding the changes we need from their elected officials, we’re not going to move forward quickly enough to save the bears.

So thank you so much for your concern, and for all you do.  My heartfelt plea is that you take the video as inspiration to become involved, or more involved, through the Center’s activist network or whatever way most appeals to you to support rapid action on greenhouse pollution.  The costs of inaction are devastating and they are mounting all the time.

With thanks and best wishes,

Kassie R. Siegel
Center for Biological Diversity
P.O. Box 549, Joshua Tree, CA  92252
Phone: (760) 366-2232 x.302
Fax: (760) 366-2669

Add Your Voice!
There are 4 comments on this post…
  1. Lori conwayOn Jan. 27th, 2019

    Feed the polar breaks during summer! Give me a break? Give them a whale! A run over deer but give them someone! Tourist go to see these creatures not to watch them starving! Change the law! What kind of people can be so cruel?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Feb. 7th, 2019

      Lori, though I understand your concern and simplistic idea on how to save these poor animals, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. We need to concentrate on changing how we as humans treat the planet polar bears call home. They don’t have the ability, we do. Save the polar bear habitat by reducing our carbon emissions and learning how to live more sustainable lives will not just save the bears but humans as well. If not we are all going the way fo the dodo bird.

  2. Brenda AbellOn May. 13th, 2011

    The bears are affected and are starving from the effects of our behavior. I know in one of the western states we feed the elk and I feel that this contact (although very limited) increases compassion and support from visitors able to see these animals. Surely, there must be a way we could provide food for polar bears since our behavior is causing their environment to change so quckly they can not adapt as they would in natural circumstances. Money raised from viewing expeditions could go totally toward support for polar bears. Please, let us all get together and solve this problem.

  3. Robert BuchananOn Dec. 12th, 2010

    It is illegal to feed the polar bears in Manitoba, but it is legal to kill polar bears from the comfort of one’s armchair by not reducing one’s carbon foot print…It is very sad that so many people just don’t get it. Please look in the mirror and ask yourself “what am I going to do today.

    Robert Buchanan
    Polar Bears International

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