A Sobering Day on the Tundra

11/16/2011 9:23:36 PM

A Sobering Day on the Tundra

Today is colder than previous days in Churchill, at -11C (+11F). It's cloudy and projected to be the same for the next several days. There were more bears around the Tundra Buggy® Lodge this morning (we counted 10 bears at 8:30 a.m. or so). We observed the first wrestling yesterday, and we're seeing more wrestling today. The cold air, and the wrestling by bears in relatively good body condition, give me some hope for bear survival this year.

Sparring bears

My optimism is short-lived. Today, my personal, closeup view of bear body condition is that bears near the Lodge are in poorer body condition than I have ever experienced in my 10+ years of visiting Churchill on behalf of PBI and polar bear conservation. As I kid growing up in a relatively rural area, I learned to assess animal body condition with my friends who lived on dairy farms. During my zoo and wildlife conservation career, my professional colleagues and I have frequently used body condition scoring to ensure that a variety of animals are in "great shape" for good health and reproduction, and I apply this experience to my assessment of polar bears around Churchill.

The good news is that some of the polar bears walking into the Lodge area today look fatter than the bears we have seen so far - most of these earlier bears exhibited tight guts instead of the rounded, droopy stomachs we observed today in bears that we consider are in "good body condition." The bad news, and an amazing thing to me, is the shifting baseline for current bear watchers versus the bear watchers of just 10 years ago. At that time, we considered the bears with tight stomachs to be the bears in "lower body condition" or "poor body condition," while the ones with rounded stomachs were the only ones we considered to be in good body condition. We were concerned that those bears with tight stomachs would not survive until the next year.

Thin mother with cubs

Now that we observe a lot of bears with tight stomachs around the Lodge, the conversation seems to be "that bear (with a tight stomach) looks like it's in relatively good condition, and it may survive this year" while the conversation around bears with hips protruding or where we can visualize ribs through the thick coat is "that bear looks like it won't survive very much longer."

Polar bears are feeding on decades-old waste grain at the Churchill town dump this year, a behavior never seen before; this gives me even more cause for concern that these bears are teetering at the brink of survival. Eerily, as I am thinking about this year's average bear body condition and writing this, we see two bears resting near an item that looks like a dead bear we are driving Buggy One along the shore near the Lodge.

The color of the thing is right for a bear and contrasts with the pristine white color of the new-fallen snow. The shape of the thing is right, and the edge of the shape looks like fur. The thing is 200+ yards away, near the open water of the Bay, and is twisted as it would be if an animal experienced an agonal death. Everyone gets out their binoculars and their digital cameras to get a better look at the object. We come to a consensus-of-experts aboard Buggy One that the thing appears to be a dead bear.

Right now it no longer occurs to me that I should be optimistic about the future. There are more dead bears "out there" all over the range of the polar bear, and we should all be concerned about the future of polar ecosystems and the creatures that live there. Every person on the planet needs to understand that these polar bear deaths are early warnings about total failure of one remote ecosystem, and potential failures on critical interdependencies in other ecosystems around the globe. Every person on the planet needs to work harder to ensure the future of our Planet Earth, and to ensure good stewardship of all of God's creatures through active conservation of natural resources.

Photo of bear sparring ©John Tagney; mother and cubs ©Julene Reed.

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