Polar Bear Populations Drop: Researchers Debate Methods of Preservation

First Posted: Feb 20, 2013 10:21 AM EST

Polar bears have long been the mascot for climate change. Charismatic and on the brink of extinction, these bears have captured the hearts of the public. Now, though, they're in more trouble than ever. Only about 25,000 polar bears are left in the wild, and many of them are suffering from lack of food and other issues. Researchers are scratching their heads and trying to figure out exactly what to do to save the large mammal.

Some organizations, such as Polar Bears International, are trying to raise further awareness about the plight of the polar bear. Currently, the Lincoln Park Zoo is hosting Polar Bear Awareness Week, where participants will learn more each day about what they can do to help the bears. The zoo will offer suggestions such as cutting down on plastic bag use or biking to work and using public transportation in order to help the environment.

Unfortunately, these suggestions won't immediately help the polar bears currently in the wild. Andrew Derocher, a biologist and polar bear expert at the University of Alberta, has other suggestions. He recently published a paper in the journal Conservation Letters which outlined several emergency actions that could help save polar bears in the Arctic. Among them is the idea of using helicopters to airdrop food near polar bears. The cost of this endeavor would be $32,000 per day for the bears that are the most easily accessible. Other ideas that Derocher suggested included moving the bears further north where ice is less likely to melt, and humanely euthanizing some of the bears.

Needless to say, the ideas are both costly and somewhat unrealistic. Would researchers truly wish to preserve a species in the wild in a way that would possibly make them less wild? Even so, measures need to be taken. Of the 19 known polar bear groups in the wild, researchers have only been able to accurately survey seven. The numbers of the known populations, though, are falling.

The population in the Souther Beaufort Sea, for example, has been studied each spring using capture and recapture methods. In 2006, though, researchers surveying the population found that the bears were significantly more stressed in comparison to the bears that had been surveyed 20 years prior. The cubs had a lower survival rate overall and lower body weight than their ancestors.

This trend, unfortunately, will probably continue. Polar bears essentially fast for half of the year. As ice cover shrinks, though, bears will have a harder and harder time finding viable hunting grounds. This will mean less food for the bears and a lower survival rate.

Whether realistic or not, though, all of these methods highlight the fact that polar bears may soon no longer be present in the wild.

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