Taylor, M., 2006 - Toronto Star

Last Stand of our Wild Polar Bears

May 1, 2006

by Dr. Mitchell Taylor

Tim Flannery is one of Australia's best-known scientists and authors. That doesn't mean what he says is correct or accurate. That was clearly demonstrated when he recently ventured into the subject of climate change and polar bears. Climate change is threatening to drive polar bears into extinction within 25 years, according to Flannery. That is a startling conclusion and certainly is a surprising revelation to the polar bear researchers who work here and to the people who live here. We really had no idea.

The evidence for climate change effects on polar bears described by Flannery is incorrect. He says polar bears typically gave birth to triplets, but now they usually have just one cub. That is wrong.

All research and traditional knowledge shows that triplets, though they do occur, are very infrequent and are by no means typical. Polar bears generally have two cubs — sometimes three and sometimes one. He says the bears' weaning time has risen to 18 months from 12. That is wrong. The weaning period has not changed. Polar bears worldwide have a three-year reproduction cycle, except for one part of Hudson Bay for a period in the mid-1980s when the cycle was shorter.

One polar bear population (western Hudson Bay) has declined since the 1980s and the reproductive success of females in that area seems to have decreased. We are not certain why, but it appears that ecological conditions in the mid-1980s were exceptionally good.

Climate change is having an effect on the west Hudson population of polar bears, but really, there is no need to panic. Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present.

It is noteworthy that the neighbouring population of southern Hudson Bay does not appear to have declined, and another southern population (Davis Strait) may actually be over-abundant.

I understand that people who do not live in the north generally have difficulty grasping the concept of too many polar bears in an area. People who live here have a pretty good grasp of what that is like to have too many polar bears around.
This complexity is why so many people find the truth less entertaining than a good story. It is entirely appropriate to be concerned about climate change, but it is just silly to predict the demise of polar bears in 25 years based on media-assisted hysteria.

Dr. Mitchell Taylor, Polar Bear Biologist,
Department of the Environment, Government of Nunavut, Igloolik, Nunavut
Dr. Mitchell Taylor
Government of Nunavut, Department of Environment - Wildlife Division
PO Box 209
Igloolik, (NU) X0A 0H0
Tel: (867) -934-2051 Fax: 867-934-2058 Email: mtaylor2@gov.nu.ca