Alaska, geopolitics and climate change are in the news and not because of Sarah Palin. Besides, if you’ve been on social media, you may have recently seen photos circulating of skinny malnourished polar bears standing on shrinking summer ice. Bear with me (pun intended), if you’re a Johnny Depp fan, like I am, you may also have seen one of his quotes making the rounds, “If you don’t like seeing pictures of violence towards animals being posted, you need to help stop the violence, not the pictures.” Photos of the malnourished polar bears standing on decreasing ice patches, scientific evidence and ongoing activism shining its light on the issues that seem to “bother” people and won’t go away, bring to mind leaving a slow-leaking gas stove in a house full of animals. It’s violence by silence. We’re watching how the animals are behaving and how the environment is affecting them, but we’re getting more upset that we know about it.
A biologist by the name of Jack Lentfer has been working on protecting polar bears in the Arctic region since the 1970s and for starters, he’s taken the fight about the polar bear-sea ice relationship to Palin, managed the last state polar bear program, and retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a polar bear scientist. Did I mention his work as a consultant to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission? He didn’t just find the serious effect climate change has had on polar bears good for a poster and a frown. He was stationed at the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Barrow in the early ‘70s and became one of the founding delegates of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, where he represented US interests until 1981. He’s widely published.
Above all else, with a life devoted to his pursuit, Jack Lentfer makes us care for the violence against polar bears.
This summer, the United States Geological Survey, using scientific models to determine how different emissions levels affect global temperatures, released their research. Researchers found that climate change could reduce the population of 8,500 polar bears in Alaska, Russia and Norway within a decade. The Polar Basin Divergent Ecoregion that includes Alaska is experiencing some of the most rapid declines in the availability of summer sea ice. Without that sea ice, polar bears lose a vital means of getting around to hunt their meal: seals. They also need the sea ice to mate and give birth.
Alaska, the Arctic and many of the world’s coldest regions have been most affected by warming global temperatures, according to many veteran Arctic researchers. Some of these researchers have been tracking the recent appearance of the so-called pizzly bear—a grizzly-polar bear hybrid. Some observers recently have witnessed polar bears break underwater dive records to compensate for the lack of sea ice. In fact, a polar bear in Norway was recorded in August 2015 breaking a record as it swam 148 to 164 feet without coming up for air as it stalked three seals. It stayed underwater for three minutes and 10 seconds. The previous record for polar bear underwater dives was 72 seconds.
The event was published in the journal Polar Biology to underscore the desperate measures polar bears must take to survive given the melting sea ice caused by climate change. The researchers explained that usually when polar bears stalk seals on ice floats, they hide behind other ice floats, but if there’s nowhere to hide then the only option is to go deep. To explain this unusual polar bear’s behavior, the veteran Arctic guide who witnessed the dive said that the polar bear went to extremes to make it work even though he did not successfully catch the seals.
According to the WWF, polar bears spend 50% of their time hunting for food, but less than 2% of their hunts are successful.
The resulting vast numbers of polar bears suffering through the changes to their environment or not making it at all reveal that they can’t adapt fast enough and Lentfer was one of the concerned scientists who provided the early warnings. In 2006 as one of the members of the scientific community supporting listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, he reported that the science was irrefutable: polar bears cannot survive without sea ice and that all summer sea ice would be gone within the next few decades.
Polar bears were declared a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act under former President George W. Bush in 2008 because of diminishing sea ice caused by global climate warming as evidenced in colder regions.
During the lead up to the inclusion of the polar bear to be protected under the Endangered Species Act, Jack Lentfer penned “My Turn: Palin has wrong view on warming and polar bears.” He noted that former Governor Sarah Palin in a letter to Interior Secretary Kempthorne on October 22, 2007 stated that listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was based entirely on highly speculative and uncertain climate and ice modeling. He disputed her claims by citing scientific studies from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, a world leader on the issue of global warming.
He called her out on downplaying the significance of human activities as a cause of climate change. He pointed out some of her misinformation tactics, from implying that the state of Alaska at that time had an active polar bear program and were enacting bans on most hunting of bears, to writing op-ed pieces that Alaskan Beaufort Sea polar bear populations were stable for twenty years. Some fact-checking by Lentfer showed that Palin had overstated the benign condition of bears, since they were in fact declining as sea ice decreased. He also revealed that the state hadn’t had a polar bear program since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, when authority was transferred from the state to the federal government. He also called the basis for her opposition to listing polar bears under the Endangered Species Act highly misleading, because, although she claimed that a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts led her to her decision, the vast majority of experts agreed that the projections, analyses and predictions that led to calls for the listing were valid and germane.
He made it clear that her real reasons for not accepting the effects of climate change on polar bears stem from her fear that their protection would slow or block development. He cautioned about her influence on how the Endangered Species Act was interpreted if she became vice-president and how little protection would be extended to polar bears. She basically dismissed concerns about polar bears and handled the concerns and science with state-sponsored negligence. Additionally, as many Palin critics noted that Palin basically echoed the oil industry’s arguments to oppose the link between climate change and polar bear endangerment, Jack Lentfer recognized that she got Alaska to ignore the consensus of active researchers. Why? In order to have their own writers arrange the science behind their view of wildlife conservation themselves in generalities so as to avoid presenting a more substantial picture of the science and the facts in the field.
It might have been a little difficult to find a spot in one of their paragraphs for his analysis that polar bears faced industrial dangers including the ingestion of contaminants associated with oil development or oil spills. When you have ‘Drill Baby Drill’ emitting from Palin and her combative generalists, where do you put sound expert advice from Lentfer that the hoped for benefits of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge do not justify the risk to polar bears and other wildlife?
Lentfer is seen as a pioneer in the fight to save polar bears from a fast-deteriorating situation. Many scientists have found his early evidence and ongoing tracking serves as a great foundation for continued in-depth fieldwork to compare old records to new and to provide sound advice for environmental management and responsible policies. Today, as scientists continue their observations and continue to build on long-term datasets to really look at the changes, polar bear hunting odds are still difficult to swallow, but their habitat is changing faster than they can adapt. Sure, nature is resilient and there is still talk about how if the polar bears increase their hibernation, then they might conserve their energy and thus avoid starvation while they wait for their hunting ground to freeze back over.
When the Arctic freezeth over…because a new study led by the University of Wyoming polar bear economist John Whiteman published in Science in July 2015 found that summer declines in activity and body temperature really offered polar bears limited energy savings. The bears’ body temperature didn’t drop nearly enough to put them in a state in which they would require less food. There is another adaptation that the study pointed out that the polar bear might be able to rely on for its survival. The data suggests that when bears swim in the cold Arctic water for longer than a few minutes at a time, they cool down the outer parts of their body, which means that less body heat at their core is lost to the cold water. That might explain why the bear who broke the record for the longest underwater dive was clocked in at a few minutes rather than 72 seconds. Maybe, he’s figuring out how to stay warm while hunting. There is a limit however, according to the study. They tracked one polar bear during a nine day swim who survived but lost nearly a quarter of her body mass. Their findings corroborate past findings, such as those of Jack Lentfer. There is a limit to how long polar bears can persist as sea ice continues to decline. We need to stop sea ice decline if we want polar bears in our future.
What is being done about it? The writers of this year’s Alaska Wildlife Action Plan did include the polar bear, so they made the list of example high-priority animals that need to be the recipients of conservation aid dollars in the next decade. The grants stem from a federal State Wildlife Grants program that explicitly aims to prevent endangered species listing. $60 million has been spent in Alaska since 2000 with the program. Earlier this month, a Justice Department lawyer told a federal appeals court that a federal plan to designate a huge swath of the U.S. Arctic as critical polar bear habitat should be upheld despite objections from the state of Alaska. The Department of Interior has proposed to put the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain under wilderness protection, while Republicans hope that the President’s trip to Alaska doesn’t mean he’s going to set the whole place aside after setting aside 12 million acres in January.
While we’ve got our attention on the Arctic and endangered species, put on your “Watch Congress” hat: The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (Senate) and the SHARE Act (House) violate the spirit and letter of the law of the Endangered Species Act by eviscerating many key protections at its foundation to allow trophy hunters to import head and hides from threatened polar bears that were killed in Canada. While there are some provisions in the Senate Act that are considered beneficial, there are several provisions that are hostile to the interests of wildlife, conservation and shared public lands because of the pandering to special interests. You might not know that the Safari Club International actually sponsors an award category “Bears of the World” award, which requires killing five bears, such as the polar bear on a number of continents, not for meat or management, just in case you wanted to pretend there was a silver lining in the crosstalk.
Maybe the spirit of Jack Lentfer might carry on in some who aren’t going to let industrial development deals squander protections just to steamroll over our responsibility in environmental management and protecting animals. Don’t we feel injuriously irresponsible when we don’t take these challenges seriously enough to even care? I can’t imagine walking away from a house where there was a slow gas leak and looking the other way as animals suffocated or had to figure it out because people don’t want to be bothered with sustainable practices that consider the well-being of wildlife too.
It’s not too much to ask and thankfully there are people like Jack Lentfer who have helped manage these tricky waters as we cling desperately to patches of hope that steer our sense of responsibility in a sea filled with hydrocarbon lovers who want even those hopes to melt away. Well, why didn’t they tell me it was a free for all? Oh yeah, they did, I was just too caught up remembering Valdez.
Arctic drilling isn’t worth the risks. As the author of “Permanent Protection of the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Jack Lentfer said it best, “The only real mitigation measure for adverse effects of oil development to polar bears would be prohibition of oil-related activity from September to April. To concentrate all activity during the rest of the year is not acceptable, however, given the importance of the coastal plain to caribou and other wildlife and the vulnerability of unfrozen tundra in the summer.”
Those pesky particulars called wildlife…
Sources: Weather Network, National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, takepart, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Juneau Empire, Polar Bear Science, Arctic Economics, Lentfer’s “Polar Bear-Sea Ice Relationships” Panel Report, Daily Kos, National Parks Magazine (2001 Sep-Oct), Steven Kazlowski’s “The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World” (2008), Center for Biological Diversity, Salon, newsminer.com, New York Times, The Hill, Science, livescience