Interview with Dr Steven Amstrup


What is the single biggest threat to polar bears?

Without a doubt, it’s global warming. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This is having a profound impact on Arctic sea ice, which polar bears rely on for hunting their seal prey. Ringed seals, the polar bear’s main prey, rely on the sea ice, too, for giving birth to their pups and raising them.

There are other important issues too. For example, rougher sea ice with more open water will be increasingly difficult for young polar bear cubs to negotiate. Adults may be able to work with it, but cubs are not equipped for prolonged immersion in cold water and can become hypothermic.

Also, delayed autumn freeze-up could prevent females from reaching their denning areas in autumn. Sea ice is becoming less and less suitable as a platform for pregnant female bears to dig snow dens in which to give birth to their young; at the same time, sea ice is also changing in ways that may prevent access to land denning areas.

Scientists have documented a drop in body condition and lower cub survival rates in two well-studied polar bear populations that have experienced sea ice loss: in the Western Hudson Bay population (decline of 30% since the 1980s) and the Southern Beaufort Sea population (decline of nearly 50% since the 1980s).

It is difficult to get away from the conclusion that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear. Without action on the climate crisis, we could see dramatic declines in polar bear numbers by the middle of this century.


Although your speciality lies in Polar Bear conservation, do you see an overlap in how conservation is tackled globally?

The traditional model for conservation is that you set aside a reserve or protect a species from poachers by building a fence and posting a guard at the gate. That doesn’t work for polar bears. We can’t build a fence to protect sea ice from rising temperatures. Instead, to ensure the polar bear’s future we need to curtail the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a conservation challenge that can’t be met in the Arctic, it has to be met by all of us, by you and me, wherever we live.

But even for wildlife beyond the Arctic, traditional models are no longer enough. Sure, we must stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos or soon they will all be gone. And, yes, countless species face imminent threats from wasteful and mismanaged agricultural and logging practices. However, if we don’t act soon to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations, global warming will doom any surviving representatives of these cherished species by destroying their habitats. It will be sad indeed if we have to wait until then to realize that all of our on-the-ground conservation efforts were for naught.


What conservation issues would you say are relevant to Polar Bears and their natural habitat exclusively? (Other than global warming.)

While action on climate change is the ultimate answer for polar bears, PBI also works to ensure we keep healthy populations in the short term. As the sea ice melts, more polar bears are being driven ashore in more places, leading to an increase in negative encounters with people. Our conflict-reduction efforts help prevent injuries to people and polar bears while also keeping communities safe. Other threats to the bears include increased commercial activities, pollution, disease, inadequate habitat protection (of denning and seasonal resting areas), and the potential for over-harvest in smaller or declining polar bear populations. We work on addressing these threats through various projects and programs. Our polar bear maternal den studies, for example, add to our understanding of the behaviour of families at den sites, including their sensitivity to disturbances, which can help with setting guidelines for industry. And our support of long-term monitoring and other research provides valuable data for management decisions.


Have you noticed a change in attitude regarding conservation, climate change, etc. since you began your work in this field?

While there has always been a strong core of people who value wild places and wild creatures, I do think there’s a growing realization that we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the earth. When I began work in this field more than 40 years ago, global warming wasn’t a well-known issue among most ecologists. Now, there’s worldwide awareness about the climate crisis. The majority of people understand that global warming is real, that it’s us, and that bold action is required. People are also greatly concerned about issues like habitat loss and plastic pollution. The increased awareness gives me hope that environmental stewardship will be a priority, in the voting booth and in our personal lives.


What role do you think conservation travel can play in polar bear conservation and how would you suggest travellers offset their carbon footprint if they wish to travel sustainably?

We have found that when people see wild polar bears and experience the Arctic, they become inspired to save the bears and their remarkable ecosystem for generations to come. Conscientious, respectful ecotourism can help local communities earn vital income and encourage residents and visitors alike to recognize the long-term advantages of conservation. When traveling, it’s important to work with responsible companies that care about a sustainable future.

The most important part of “offsetting” carbon emissions from travel is to be aware of the carbon costs and to minimize and consolidate travel wherever possible. Many of us have become accustomed to frivolous (or at least unnecessary travel) and we need to become aware of the significant ecological consequences of our travel. So, we should carefully budget all of our travel and especially air travel. And, when we do travel by air, we should choose carriers that have shown a commitment to becoming more sustainable in their operations.  Some airlines are moving toward their own offset programs, and as travellers, we should be aware of what they are doing or not doing. Finally, all of us should become familiar with programs available to offset or minimize carbon footprints from our travel. Some programs clearly are not effective as others, and we need to be aware of what is being done with donations. Is a program that purports to be offsetting carbon by reforestation, for example, really effectively growing trees? In the past, some of these efforts have been shown to simply be scams.  In many cases, rather than contribute to an offset that may be questionable, a donation to a conservation organization with an established track record on climate change issues might be a safer/more beneficial alternative. And when choosing such an alternative, be aware of the proportion of donations that actually goes into conservation as opposed to overhead or advertising. For example, Polar Bears International puts over 80% of all donations into conservation or education.  The bottom line is to be aware of the environmental costs of travel and to commit to act responsibly to offset that cost in the best way possible.


In your experience, do you see a generational difference in how the public relate to the issue of conservation?  For example, do you feel that younger generations are more likely to adopt sustainable lifestyles and “work-styles”? Do you think that younger generations are more conservation literate given the abundance of information and education that they have access to?

Greta Thunberg has certainly played a role in galvanizing youth around the world to care about conservation and the climate crisis. These young people, in turn, are influencing their parents and exerting a powerful influence. There definitely is increased consciousness about the urgent need to shift to a renewable energy future—and the need for our leaders to make the policy changes necessary to secure a sustainable future. There are many in younger age groups, however, who are increasingly detached from the natural world. My parents used to complain that “Kids these days don’t even know where their milk comes from.” Well, many kids these days don’t really know where anything comes from, and they don’t understand that people are connected in vital ways to healthy ecosystems—that we are participants in ecosystems, not just observers of them. This trend is reflected in the recent removal of words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary that refer to common parts of our natural world because those words—ranging from acorn to pasture—are no longer in common use. The trend is reinforced by the current and growing “electronification” of our world and the time large numbers of people devote to looking at various screens. Also, many young people are busy struggling with their economic welfare in the gig economy and busy going about their lives trying to build families and some kind of future and are just not engaged in efforts that will preserve a viable long-term future.  So, as in all age groups, great challenges still exist in reaching people and inspiring action.

We need significant structural changes and soon. Taxing carbon and reforming agriculture practices would both be large positive steps, as would ending fossil fuel subsidies. These changes would trickle across sectors making flying and fuel more expensive, along with things like beef and out-of-season produce—thus encouraging change and innovations.

Outreach efforts to reduce emissions and halt global warming have historically focused on individual actions like encouraging people to drive less, take public transit, or turn the thermostat down. Such efforts are important in showing we are walking the talk, and many of us are doing so. But these “personal” actions will not save polar bears. Years ago I remember an outreach campaign based on the calculation that if all Americans did whatever they could in the way of living more efficiently, (e.g. driving and otherwise traveling less, recycling, turning off lights, and adjusting thermostats) we could save the equivalent of all of the CO2 emissions of France. The problem in this calculation is the “if.” The required national level of commitment (to get everyone to act) could only happen with inspiration from top policy leaders.

That’s why we must vote with the climate crisis in mind, in each and every election and at all levels of government to ensure the policy changes needed will take place. We also must vote in the marketplace to support businesses and companies that have shown they care about a sustainable future—for polar bears and for all of life on Earth.


Are issues like poaching and illegal hunting an issue for polar bears? If so, how is this addressed?

Currently, this isn’t an issue for polar bears, although it was in the past. During the 1960s, polar bears were severely overhunted, so much so that scientists feared for their future. To address this, the five polar bear nations signed an historic agreement on their conservation. Today, over most of their range, polar bears are mainly hunted by Native peoples, with takes governed by a quota system designed to keep the harvest within the bounds that populations can support. Thankfully, poaching is rare and doesn’t pose a problem like it does for other wildlife like elephants and rhinos.


If there was one message you’d like to bring across to readers (and the world!) regarding polar bear conservation and conservation in general, what would it be?

That there’s still time for hope. We often hear overwhelming news about the Arctic and polar bears––but we know that if we take action now, we’ll see sea ice respond in time for polar bears, and if societies do act to halt the rise in CO2 in time to save polar bears it will benefit the rest of life on Earth including us.



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