Polar Bears have been on Earth for a long time. In fact, the oldest known polar bear fossil is 130,000-110,000 years old. There are theories that place their existence at even up to 1.7 million years.
Today, primarily due to human impact, these majestic marine animals face an all-too-real losing battle with survival.
We’ve talked about polar bears in prior posts, but we at Backcountry Journeys feel additional conversation is warranted as their situation, primarily due to climate change, pollution and hunting, continues to be dire. We love these bears, and they are suffering.
The World Conservation Union estimates that there are between 20,000-25,000 wild polar bears. They are distributed throughout the Arctic in 19 subpopulations. Of these just one subpopulation is increasing in numbers. Five are stable, and four are in decline. The remaining 9 have not been assessed as they are data deficient.
Sitting on top of the Arctic food chain, polar bears are the largest land carnivores in the world, and these boys (and girls) need to eat!
Because they feed mostly on seals, the most important habitat for polar bears are the edges of pack ice where currents and wind interact, forming a continually melting and refreezing matrix of ice patches and leads (open spaces in the ocean between sea ice). These are the areas of where polar bears can find the greatest number of bearded and ringed seals (defenders.org).
According to Polar Bears International, sea ice is as important to the Arctic ecosystem as soil is to a forest. The food chain begins with algae and other tiny organisms that live on and within the sea ice. Arctic cod feed on them. Seals eat Arctic cod. And polar bears prey on seals.
This ice/habitat is shrinking. FAST. And it is due mostly to climate change.
Polar bears were one of the first species to become threatened due to anthropogenic climate change. Global warming is heating the Arctic faster than anywhere else on earth, shrinking the crucial sea ice at a rate of 14 percent per decade.
Satellites show there is an area larger than Alaska and California combined less sea ice than in the past.
In the late spring, the ice is breaking up sooner and forming later in the fall, forcing bears to burn huge amounts of energy walking or swimming long distances to get to any remaining ice. This lack of food also hurts the polar bears ability to have children, as the less they can eat, the fewer cubs are born.
Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008 (World Wildlife Fund).
While climate change remains the greatest threat to the polar bear’s survival, that is not all that they face.
We’ve all heard about the desires of the oil and gas industry to take Alaska for what it’s worth. With that comes the potential risks of habitat destruction. Contact with oil spills can reduce the insulating effect of a bear’s fur requiring them to use more energy to get warm, and can poison them if ingested. Polar bears can also be exposed to toxic chemicals such as pesticides through their prey, which can affect a bear’s biological functioning and ability to reproduce.
Traditionally polar bears were hunted in vast quantities. This has died down recently as the world community has reacted to the vulnerability of the polar bears by banning hunting outright or installing quotas on the number of polar bears that can be hunted per year. Illegal hunting continues.
Without action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we are on a collision course with an ice-free Arctic summer. If so, the polar bear’s ability to hunt during the summer months will only make circumstances much worse. Hopefully it’s not too late for our white, furry beautiful friends up north. We at Backcountry Journeys certainly support all efforts working towards the betterment of polar bears, and earth in general.
Travel with Backcountry Journeys if you, too, appreciate these bears and want to see them thrive. Come with us on what is sure to be an incredible, once in a lifetime adventure to photograph Alaskan Polar Bears up close and personal. Trip dates for 2018 are September 25th – 30th and September 28th – Oct 3. Only a couple spots remain on either tour so make your reservations soon!
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.