BARROW, ALASKA—It is the law of the cute. If an animal is cute—at least when it is very young—it has a popularity that may not be justified when it grows up but people get very protective. And if it grows up to be a very beautiful creature, all bets are off. Consider the polar bear.
In recent months environmentalists and government officials have been warning that the the bears—certainly among the cutest of cubs and the most gloriously beautiful adults—are endangered by global warming. The ice they use to live on is melting and they may not be able to hunt. The Sunday Times of London reported as long ago as 2005 that bears were drowning because they had to swim longer distances than usual. The Washington Post reported a study in 2004 by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, that predicted that the bears may become extinct by the end of the century, mostly because of drowning or starving to death. USGS reported in the New York Times that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by mid-century. Practically every environmental group has issued press releases lamenting the impending extinction of what is an unarguably beautiful creature even if it is one of the most dangerous animals in the world. They could be gone entirely from Alaska.
Not everyone is convinced, including scientists up here in the Alaskan Arctic, where no one leaves town unarmed because of the bears. Daniel Lum, an Iñupiat guide had to chase a bear away from his semi-hysterical wife two weeks ago after the bear came exploring their Barrow home. Lum never lets any of his clients out of his SUV on the ice unless he has his rifle with him, and that’s not for effect. Anyone going near the beach is warned to watch for bears. People live with them and respect them here.
But Glenn Sheehan;, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BARC), an Iñupiat-funded research center, says lamenting for the bears may be a tad premature. Along with most things in Arctic science, the baseline data needed to draw conclusions is missing. Also, Sheehan, an anthropologist, says the lamentation is coming mostly from biologists who know very little about ice and the bears’ relationship to it.
Sheehan does not doubt for a moment that climate change is real. Virtually no one in Alaska does. And he is worried that Washington—a long way from Barrow—will try to “save” the bears by dumping on the native people who live with them.
“I live here;,” says Sheehan, who is not Iñupiat. “Most of my friends here were born and raised here and they know that it’s much easier for people to regulate them than it is to regulate themselves. Polar bear survival aside, what’s the most likely result of putting polar bears—as opposed to any one of a thousand species that you’d find in Arizona or Pennsylvania that are potentially endangered by climate change—on the endangered list? The most likely result is: George Bush or Hillary or whoever succeeds [Bush] is going to say, well polar bears are endangered by climate change. I’m going to tell those Chinese, you cut it back from 3 to 2 coal plants a week? He’s going to go to Cincinnati and say, polar bears are threatened. Turn in your SUVs? I don’t think so. They’re going to go to the oil industry and say, polar bears are threatened so stop providing energy to our country? No.”
What they are going to do, he says, is put restrictions on the people in the Arctic to stop driving their ATVs on the beach or some other fairly ridiculous thing, affecting on their culture and their lives. Yet there is nothing the native people of the Arctic are doing that endangers the bears; they are helping them survive.
Without baseline data it is impossible to take real actions to save the bears—if indeed they are endangered. The science being used to alarm the public is spurious, he says. When you ask the biologists pertinent questions, you get weak answers: “Have you modeled the different types of sea ice? Do you know precisely what sea ice is most important to the bears? The answer is no. Is most of the sea ice that’s disappearing, that’s making most of the headlines and somehow being linked to the endangerment of bears, have anything to do with the survival of the bears? They don’t have a clue.”
Maybe the ice change has actually been good for the bears, he suggests. For instance, there are more grey whales coming to the American Arctic now that there is more water to swim in. And the more grey whales, the more orcas. When orcas and grey whales get together there are more whale carcasses around because the orcas rip out the tongues of the whales (it is an orca delicacy) and leave the rest of the animal, which bears love.
“A couple of years ago” he said, “the ice went out but it didn’t notify the bears--went out overnight and stranded 129 bears here. It went too far for them to swim if they didn’t have to. They were here for a long time. A grey whale washed up at Point Barrow and they were just all over that. They were the dirtiest looking bears. They were happy. They would eat. They’d sleep. They’d eat.” That could be a model for the bears adapting.
They can sit around waiting for home delivery.
He also points out that there have been two or three warming periods in the Arctic in the past and all the evidence indicates that the bears survived without any interference from politicians.
Maybe they ate them. Probably not. Politicians must taste terrible.