Steve Amstrup on a Tundra Buggy

Photo: Jenny Wong

A Life Devoted to Polar Bears: Dr. Steven Amstrup

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



13 Dec 2022

In 2010, Polar Bears International’s chief scientist, Dr. Steven Amstrup, retired from his 30-year position as Polar Bear Project Leader for the U.S. Geological Survey to join our team. At the end of this year, he plans to step up to an emeritus position while passing the baton to two hand-picked successors, Dr. John Whiteman and Dr. Flavio Lehner. I recently talked with Steven about his career, his passionate commitment to polar bear conservation, and his hopes—and plans—for the future.

Q: You’ve spent your entire career as a biologist, including more than four decades working with polar bears. What sparked your interest? 

I’ve always had a love and a craving for nature and wildlife. During my boyhood in Minnesota, my brother and I spent hours exploring the outdoors. I also pored over books about wildlife and watched nature-focused television shows. Wild Kingdom was my favorite. I was fascinated to learn that there were people whose work was to try to “save” wild animals and the wild places they needed. By age five or six, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. As a child I imagined that where there were bears, it was truly wild, and I dreamed of someday working with them.

Polar bear biologist Steve Amstrup with two polar bear cubs

Photo: Dr. Steven Amstrup

Dr. Steven Amstrup early in his career, a time period when he helped answer many basic questions about polar bears.

Q: How did that fascination with wildlife lead you to polar bears?

After high school, I earned an undergraduate degree in forestry at the University of Washington in Seattle and then was accepted into my dream MSc program at the University of Idaho, studying black bears. After graduating, I worked briefly with the Utah Division of Wildlife before moving to Wyoming for a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studying pronghorn antelope and sharp-tailed grouse. 

My experience with black bears served me well when the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to hire someone who could hit the ground running and reactivate a flagging effort to learn about Alaska’s polar bears. At the time, little was known about them. The chance to work with such impressive animals, living, not on land, but in the other-worldly setting of drifting pack ice, far exceeded my childhood dreams. 

Q: What was it like in the early years studying polar bears in Alaska? 

When I first went to Alaska in 1980, my work focused on understanding the polar bears’ basic biology, and I helped answer many questions about them, from where they den to how far they travel. I also helped document their recovery from severe overhunting in the 1950s and 1960s, which had caused their populations to plunge. Excessive harvest in Alaska and elsewhere led the five polar bear nations to sign a landmark agreement in 1973 to regulate hunting—the first international agreement focused on a single wildlife species.

Until the mid-1990s, the future looked positive for polar bears. Back then, every talk I gave was fun. The research was exciting, the bears were recovering from their earlier decline, and we were breaking barriers in learning about them almost every season. But even then, things were turning. The symptoms were just not yet obvious to us.

In 2012, Dr. Steven Amstrup won the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, a prize awarded by the Indianapolis Zoo to individuals for "extraordinary contributions to conservation efforts" affecting one or more animal species.

Q: When did you first start noticing changes in the sea ice and with Alaska’s polar bears? 

During most of those early years in Alaska, the summer sea ice didn’t retreat far from the state’s northern coast. Back then, I could stand on the shore near Barrow or Prudhoe Bay and see the pack ice even in late summer. If lucky, I might be able to see polar bears hunting seals with the aid of a spotting scope. 

At the time, we were able to conduct field research on the sea ice in both the spring and fall. But by the late 1990s, the fall sea ice had become unpredictable. By the time freeze-up had progressed enough to land and work safely on the ice, there wasn’t enough daylight to conduct our research. The year 2001 goes down in history as the last year we conducted autumn field work on the ice. 

By then, our research had shown that polar bears need sea ice to reach their seal prey—so the retreat of the ice and the increasing numbers of polar bears onshore in summer were both troubling signs that big and negative changes were afoot. 

Q: In 2007, you spearheaded a team that led to the polar bears’ listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Can you tell us about that?

By then, I had earned a PhD in biology from the University of Fairbanks and my job function had been transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. Our findings and those of researchers in other countries had revealed the emergent threat that climate warming posed for polar bears. 

Environmental groups had petitioned the U.S. government to list polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. My team and I were tasked with advising the Secretary of Interior on whether a listing was warranted. Our deadline was six months, a timeframe so tight we had to recruit researchers from other agencies and jurisdictions, expanding our USGS team from five to 17. The work was so intense that I moved a sleeping pad and hot plate to my office. 

In the end, we assembled nine reports that told a dire story. We projected that we could lose two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by the middle of this century, and possibly all of them by century’s end, without significant greenhouse gas reductions. Convinced by our findings, the U.S. listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the ESA on May 14, 2008. With this act, polar bears became the first species ever to be listed because of future threats from human-caused global warming.

Steve Amstrup gives a talk on a Tundra Buggy

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Dr. Steven Amstrup talks with visitors to Churchill on a Tundra Buggy. Early on, he recognized the importance of outreach in polar bear conservation.

Q: Two years later, you were the lead author of a paper in Nature showing it wasn’t too late to save polar bears, that their future depended on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That was also the year you joined Polar Bears International’s staff. Was there a link between the two? 

By then, my research and that of others in other countries had outlined the problem facing polar bears and answered the question, “What do we need to do to save them?” While there was still more research to be done to fully understand the bears, it was already clear that saving polar bears from extinction would require global action to restructure how we generate and use energy. I realized that the most important role I could play was to share what I knew about the bears and the threat of global warming—with as broad an audience as possible—and PBI, a science-based organization with an approach that I respected, gave me a platform for doing that. 

Q: Since then, you have been tireless in your outreach while also continuing to publish research. Has anything about this work surprised you? 

I originally planned to stay with PBI for about five years—thinking that, by then, societies would have moved toward more sustainable CO2 emissions pathways and the future for polar bears would be more secure. I had many reasons to be optimistic, but boy was I wrong. I didn’t fully appreciate the power of the denial movement. I also didn’t imagine that our policy leaders, many of whom are smart people, would choose to literally ruin the world in exchange for the further enrichment of a very few. So, the initial five years stretched into more than a decade—and we still have far to go.

Polar bear biologist Steve Amstrup looks out off the Tundra Buggy

Photo: Jenny Wong

Polar bear biologist Steven Amstrup looks out off the Tundra Buggy.

Q: Slow progress by the world’s governments must be incredibly frustrating for you. How do you keep going? 

That’s a tough one. My core values are rational thought and evidence-based decision making. It’s hard for me to understand why governments aren’t prioritizing action when the science and the logical actions indicated by that science are so clear. Yet I’m heartened by the passage of the U.S. climate bill. It’s the biggest step in the right direction the U.S. has ever taken. My hope is that it will be a game-changer, in the U.S. and globally.

Q: You have a big parka to fill. Who will take on your role at PBI after you’ve stepped up to an emeritus position?

After giving this a lot of thought, I reached out to two young scientists whom I greatly admire. Both were eager to get involved. Dr. John Whiteman of Old Dominion University is our new chief research scientist and Dr. Flavio Lehner of Cornell University is our new chief climate scientist. Between them, they have extensive knowledge about polar bears, sea ice, and climate warming. Both are rising stars in their research fields and are devoted to seeing their findings applied to societal challenges. The combination of research and conservation leadership they embody is what PBI needs to move us forward. Knowing they’re on board makes it easier for me to move to an emeritus position. 

Q: What are your plans going forward? What is the future you would like to see? 

Spending time with my wife, Virginia, is my top priority. We want to be able to enjoy life and do things together while we still can. As for the future, I hold onto the hope that momentum from the public and recent U.S. actions will finally motivate global leaders to prioritize climate warming—and that I won’t simply go down in history as a polar bear historian.