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Global warming "poster child"
Feb 21, 2008

In recent years, the plight of two species of white-furred animals has made Canada in one case infamous and in the other famous the world over. One animal has risen to such lofty status as a symbol of Canadian cruelty that it has attracted the attention of such pop icons as Paul McCartney. The other animal is fast becoming the “poster child” for the global warming debate. The latter has even moved a reluctant American president to consider something not associated with his administration’s agenda — concern for the environment.

A famous 1977 photograph shows Brigette Bardot on an ice floe cuddling a fluffy doe-eyed baby seal. This photo helped kick off a decades-long protest against the seal hunt, destroying the seal fur industry that had provided a much-needed income for Newfoundlanders and Inuit. Newfoundland sealers are once again on the ice killing seals, but not the cute and cuddly baby seals with white coats.

Seal pups are not endangered by the annual hunt on the ice floes as they number in the hundreds of thousands. Such is not the case for polar bears, the animal that put Churchill, Manitoba, on the world tourism map.

In Manitoba, there are just 925 polar bears, a 22 per cent decline from 1989 to 2004, according to a Manitoba government press release. Yet, Manitoba still has one of the largest concentrations of polar bears in the Arctic region. Worldwide, some 20,000 to 22,000 bears are estimated to reside in the Arctic region. Some experts believe the number of polar bears has actually doubled since 1965, although there are others who vigorously argue otherwise 

Polar bears in Manitoba are facing a troubled future. Reports in recent years tell of polar bears suffering due to the late formation and early melting of the ice off Hudson Bay.  Polar bears rely upon solid Arctic Sea ice sheets as a platform to hunt their favourite food — seals — and the shortening season for Hudson Bay ice formation means fewer opportunities for the carnivores to  capture seals. The bears need intact ice sheets in order to catch seals in the winter — enabling them to put on weight in order to survive the warm months when they are unable to feed.

Experts now claim polar bears are significantly thinner than in previous years. Biologists are reporting bears that are losing weight, becoming less fit for survival on the ice and experiencing greater cub mortality. If the weight loss continues, one study predicts female bears will fall below the minimum threshold required to successfully reproduce.

All the alarming news prompted the Manitoba government in the first week of February to declare our polar bears threatened under the provincial Endangered Species Act. It is a step that Newfoundland and Ontario had earlier taken and is now under consideration in the United States. 

“We must continue to take action to protect one of our province’s most unique species, which is clearly being affected by climate change,” said Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers when announcing the new status for polar bears.”Dramatic climate changes to polar bear habitat continue to be researched and documented by scientists around the world here in Churchill.

“Our government will continue to lead the way in aggressively implementing our climate change plan to help protect the polar bear and recognize that by ensuring its future health, we are ensuring the well-being of all Manitobans.”

The Manitoba announcement attracted the attention of world-wide media outlets which reported the new status for the bear.  

It was an incident in Mexico in 2002 which prompted the provincial government to begin considering the fate of local polar bears. At the time, it was reported that at least one of the seven polar bears in a Mexican circus had been originally captured near Churchill. In 1986, Kenneth, a nuisance bear that continually raided the Churchill garbage dump, and some other bears were sent to a zoo in Germany. Thirteen years later, he ended up at the travelling circus in Mexico. The circus bears were exposed to extreme heat in Caribbean climates without the benefit of adequate water to relieve their plight. PETA covertly filmed the skinny, filthy and diesease-riddled bears and sent the film to U.S. authorities. U.S. and Puerto Rican officials seized the bears from the circus. Kenneth was given to an American zoo.

With the release of the media reports, Premier Gary Doer became involved in the fracas. As a result, the provincial government introduced the Polar Bear Protection Act in 2002, which regulates the capture, holding and export of live polar bears from Manitoba.

As a threatened species, polar bear habitat along the Hudson Bay coastline is also protected and development on privately-held or government-controlled land is severely restricted. Manitoba’s Resource Tourism Act also established a fine system and stricter licensing requirements for outfitters and eco-tourism operators working in sensitive environments.

The identification of the white bears with Churchill has resulted in Polar Bear 

International relocating its headquarters in the northern Manitoba community. The provincial government said the relocation has strengthened co-operative efforts with Partners in the Park to increase education and research on polar bears in the Hudson Bay region.

Environmentalists, who require a poster child to strengthen their concern over increased greenhouse gases, have also  associated polar bears with their cause.

The identification of polar bears with global warming and climate change has been so successful that it has forced U.S. President George W. Bush to imply he supports adding the white bears to the endangered species list. But, Bush — noted as no friend of the environment — has been reluctant to give his final approval. In fact, there is a clash between those who want the bear added to the list and those who want to gain oil-lease rights where the polar bears roam, such as the Chukchi Sea. Once the bear is on the list, oil interests would have to get the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before drilling. The proposed listing is opposed by the Alaskan State government and oil businesses. 

On the other hand, the U.S. government has already received over 500,000 public comments in favour of the listing. Environmentalists said it was an unprecedented public response to an environmental issue. No wonder environmentalists have latched onto the exotic polar bear as their “poster child.”