Affairs

Environment

The Arctic’s embattled ‘white giant’— Global

Preface

As sea ice continues to disappear off the Alaskan coast, its population of polar bears is increasingly under threat.

Bears

7 February 2011

As sea ice continues to disappear off the Alaskan coast, its population of polar bears is increasingly under threat. Now a controversial new plan to protect the white giants has riled Native groups in the state’s isolated North Slope region.

The US government has designated around 187,000 sq m in and around the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas as a critical habit for polar bears. The habitat, at the very top of Alaska, is made up of denning territories and areas of sea ice from which the bears hunt.

According to Inupiat groups, the designation will impede crucial development – any oil or gas exploration will be outlawed if it poses a risk to the animals – and access to traditional subsistence grounds. More fundamentally, however, they complain that the plan does not tackle the real problem facing the bears: global warming.

“If you don’t address climate change directly, all the other little things you can do aren’t going to amount to much,” says Jason Herreman, a polar bear specialist with the North Slope Borough, a regional administrative body.

The borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation have announced that they intend to sue the US government over the habitat plan, as will the state of Alaska. The state has also attacked the inclusion of the bear on the threatened species list.

Alaska is home to two populations of polar bears that also roam across Canada and Russia – there are around 3,500 in total. The US government, for its part, acknowledges that the recovery project will not save the Alaska bears if the planet continues to warm.

“The rationale for the plan is to basically do what we can to help as many polar bears with as much genetic diversity survive until the climate change problems turn around a bit,” says Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “If they don’t, it looks pretty grim for the polar bear.”

Polar bears are a key part of Inupiat culture. They provide food and clothing, and killing one can be a marker of manhood. “A lot of times it’s important for younger men growing up in communities to get their first bear,” says Herreman, adding that Alaska Native groups will limit the hunt to around 65 bears from the two populations in 2011. This is in line with the average number of bears taken annually over the past decade.

The demise of the bear is a dismaying prospect, though ending hunting is not the answer to the problem, according to Herreman. “Even if we limited hunting,” he says, “based on current predictions, we would still see the loss of polar bear populations in the future.”

For now, one thing is clear: even if its habitat is protected, the future is not bright for Alaska’s polar bears.

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