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POLAR BEARS

The polar bear, also known as the maritime bear, is the giant white bear which makes its home in the Polar Regions.  It got its name “maritime bear” because it spends a huge portion of time in arctic waters.  Polar bears are large creatures that can weigh up to twelve hundred pounds.  They have white fur which is used as a camouflaging device in the wintery terrain of the arctic ice.  This camouflage aids the polar bear in hunting for food.

Polar bears make their homes in different arctic locations across the globe.  These places include Russian, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and the North Pole region.

The polar bear’s existence has been watched and studied for thousands of years.  Eskimos, Russians, Inuit, and others have not only worshipped polar bears for centuries, but explorers have found cave art dating back thousands of years that depicts the polar bear.  Polar bear remains have been uncovered in archeological sites that date back twenty-five hundred years.  It’s even been said that the indigenous arctic people’s skill in seal hunting and igloo construction was taken from the polar bear.

Polar bears in the past were used as a food source for the peoples of the arctic regions, and their skins were used to make warm clothing.

In the middle Ages the polar bear was hunted, and its furs and meats were sold on the market in Russian, Asia, and other countries.  As the years passed, polar bear hunting became somewhat of a sport.

Because of this hunting, numbers in the polar bear species began to dwindle.  Polar bears were placed on the endangered species list, and steps were taken to increase their population.  Hunting was banned or restricted in many countries in the world.

Even during the Cold War, many countries came together to agree on one thing—the preservation of the polar bear.

Because of these efforts, the number of polar bears increased dramatically.  The polar bear was eventually taken off the endangered species list and labeled as being of least concern.

Today polar bears find themselves being watched yet again.  Scientists have found that by studying the polar bear communities, and charting their hunting habits, behaviors, and sizes, they can more accurately define what is going on in the arctic region.  When the polar bear is thriving, it seems that the arctic ecosystem is also thriving.  However, the studies also show that when the polar bear is not thriving, the ecosystem is suffering, as well.

Recently, polar bears were moved from a position of “least concern” to a position of “threatened” on the endangered species chart.  The main reason behind this listing is the affect climate change is having on the polar bear species.

Polar bears rely on the ice caps to survive.  By nature they hunt for seals, their main food source, from the top of an ice cap.  Polar bears typically crouch on the ice, camouflaged nicely by their white fur.  They patiently wait for the arctic seal to come up for air through holes in the ice.  When the seal emerges the polar bear attacks, capturing its prey.

As the climate warms, the ice caps are melting.  Without this natural camouflaging mound, the polar bear’s hunting efforts will be diminished considerably.  While the polar bears have been known to feed on other animals such as eggs, rodents, reindeer, muskox, birds, crabs, shellfish, and even other polar bears, these food sources do not provide the fatty substance that is required to keep the polar bear healthy through the long winter months.

Other challenges brought about by the melting of the ice caps have to do with polar bear breeding.  Mother bears often burrow out dens in the ice caps.  They use the dens to birth their cubs, and to keep the cubs safe until they are old enough to leave the den.

As the ice caps melt, scientists have observed mother bears abandoning their cubs, leaving them in the melting dens.  In other cases, the roof of the melting den of ice collapses.  This can harm the cubs, as well as plunge them into the rigid arctic waters before they can survive there.

It is estimated that polar caps are melting an average of three weeks earlier than they used to as the summer months approach.  The melting is referred to as “ice flow breakup”.  This means that polar bears are feeding an average of three weeks less each year.  This leaves polar bears unprepared to face the long summer and autumn months without the blubbery marine food.

These unfortunate circumstances, if left unchecked, can lead to the endangerment and eventually extinction of polar bears.  Scientists estimate that two thirds of the world’s polar bear population will be gone by the year 2050.  Furthermore, they predict that by the year 2080, the remaining population will consist of only a handful of polar bears in the Arctic Archipelago.

Climate change, thought definitely the largest threat, is not the only problem affecting the polar bear population.  Other issues that might work against them include pollution and oil and gas drilling.  With the banning of many dangerous pesticides and harmful chemicals, the levels of pollution in polar bear tissue have decreased.

As oil and gas drilling moves across the polar bear communities, polar bears are displaced from their homes, and separated from their food sources.

Because the threat of endangerment is considerably large, conservationists are working to protect polar bears through preventative efforts.  Some of these efforts come in part by the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act was brought about in 1978 as a provision to conserve endangered fish, vegetation, and wildlife animals.

Polar bears are only the third species to be offered protection under the Endangered Species Act due to threat from climate change.

In spite of these efforts, not everyone is on board with listing the polar bear as a potentially endangered species.  Many indigenous people in the arctic regions say that the polar bear population is on the rise.  They point to evidence of polar bears raiding human camps as proof that polar bears are increasing and outgrowing their natural habitats.

Others point to the statistics that show the number of polar bears has increased by fifty percent over the last fifty years.  Some studies show that in the 1950’s there were as few as five thousand polar bears; these studies say that today there are as many as twenty to twenty-five thousand.  These numbers indicate that the status of the polar bear is stable.

If polar bears reach the endangered ranking once again, then limitations on hunting them will be put into place.  For those who live in arctic regions this ruling could put serious limits on not only their food supply, but also their economic structure.  The limitations on hunting would impact those who make a living selling polar bear furs and meats in the arctic regions.

Other critics of the movement maintain that polar bears will adapt to their new climate and find their own ways to survive.  They suggest that polar bears will learn to hunt fish, especially salmon, from land, as their cousins, the brown bears, do.

Conservationists maintain that this view is naïve.  They argue that if polar bears migrate further south they may breed with the black or brown bears, creating a type of hybrid bear.  This would result in not only smaller polar bears, but eventually the extinction of the distinct species itself, which is the whole point in conserving them.

Those working to keep the polar bear population stable are pushing for the stabilization of the climate through the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.