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The federal agency responsible for protecting Arctic polar bears has barred two Alaska scientists from speaking about polar bears, climate change or sea ice at international meetings in the next few weeks, a move that environmentalists say is censorship.
The rule was issued last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but was made public this week. The federal government has proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species, and the wildlife agency is receiving public
WARMING WORLD HAS INCREASED POLAR BEAR NUMBERS
Environmental lobbyists have taken a long leap of logic to posit that human-caused global warming will melt most of the ice at the North Pole within 50 years and that without the ice, polar bears will be unable to survive as a species, says H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.
Fortunately, both for policy and the polar bears, anecdotal stories about polar bear cannibalism and drowning do not reflect the population trend as a whole:
Since the 1970s, while the world was warming, polar bear numbers increased dramatically from around 5,000 to as many as 25,000 today.
Historically, polar bears have thrived in temperatures even warmer than at present -- during the medieval warm period 1,000 years ago and during the Holocene Climate
Optimum between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago.
In fact, Mitchell Taylor, a biologist with Nunavut Territorial government in Canada, pointed out in testimony to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that modest warming may be beneficial to bears since it creates better habitats for its main food sources. Further, Taylor thinks that where polar bear weight and numbers are declining, arctic warming isn't the cause, but rather too many bears are competing for food.
Ironically, says Burnett, the World Wildlife Fund, while arguing that polar bears are at risk from global warming, presented data that actually bolsters Taylor's theory:
According to the WWF there are 22,000 polar bears in about 20 distinct populations worldwide.
Of those 20, only two populations -- accounting for 16.4 percent of the total number of bears -- are decreasing, and they are in areas where air temperatures have actually fallen.
The population of Davis Strait polar bears is estimated to be at 2,100, says an interim report of a three-year study.
Ten years ago, Inuit hunters, using traditional knowledge, estimated there were 1,400 Davis Strait polar bears and 1,650 by 2004.
The population in the recently released report includes polar bears in south Baffin, Labrador, Nunavik and southern Greenland.
Polar bear biologist Lily Peacock is leading a team conducting the study for the Nunavut government. She told CBC News they have counted the bears during the past two summers when the animals are land locked, and the plan is to conduct a final count this summer.
"With three years of data, we can estimate birth rate, we can estimate mortality rate," Peacock said.
Thrive During Warm Times
Polar bears have thrived during warmer climates because they are omnivores, like their cousins the brown and black bears. Though polar bears eat seals more than any other food source, research shows they have a varied diet. When other foods are available--including fish, kelp, caribou, ducks, sea birds, musk ox, and walrus carcasses--they take advantage of it.
Dr. Mitchell Taylor, a biologist with Nunavut Territorial government in Canada, pointed out in testimony to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that modest warming may be beneficial to bears since it creates better habitat for seals and would dramatically increase growth of blueberries, upon which bears gorge themselves when available.
Taylor explained Alaska's polar bear population is stable and recent research shows the polar bear population in Canada alone has increased 25 percent from 12,000 to 15,000 during the past decade, with 11 of Canada's 13 polar bear populations stable or increasing in number. Where polar bear weight and numbers are declining, Taylor thinks the cause is too many bears competing for food, not Arctic warming.
Climate scientist David Legates said shrinking Arctic sea ice may be a temporary, local phenomenon not linked to global warming, especially as the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are not in decline.
"Russian coastal-station records of both the extent of sea ice and the thickness of fast ice (ice fixed to the shoreline or seafloor) extending back 125 years show significant variability over 60- to 80-year periods," said Legates.
Many analysts see the proposal to list the polar bear as threatened as not so much about the welfare of the bears themselves but as an effort to force the Bush administration to adopt regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Steven Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com and an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, said the media attention at the Kempthorne news conference did not revolve around whether the bears were actually at risk, but rather whether the announcement meant "the Bush administration was caving on global warming."
Milloy noted, "If the administration admits that the bear is dying due to climate change, it may be forced to start energy rationing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. This is what the environmentalists filing the lawsuit had in mind all along."