Editor’s Note: The following is a condensed version of testimony presented by Richard Glenn in Barrow last month on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Glenn is an Inupiat Barrow resident, a subsistence hunter, a whaling crew’s cocaptain and a geologist who has studied sea ice.
We Inupiat live and hunt on the ice each year, and so our lives and safety depend on our knowledge of changing conditions. I have followed the polar bear in many ice environments. Here are my personal observations:
Sea Ice And Polar Bear Habitat
The biggest point in the Federal Register Notice is a receding perennial ice pack and its equivalence as a “loss of habitat.” It also mentions increased fetches of open water, and its effects on denning and feeding. There is little mention of the marginal ice zone that must grow at the expense of a receding perennial pack. The Register does acknowledge that the increase of marginal ice and corresponding reduction of multi-year ice cover may be beneficial for ice seals and polar bears.
In addition to hunting at breathing holes and wind-driven lead edges in winter, polar bears thrive in many other settings. Here in waters off Barrow, we hunters see polar bears come closer to shore in late spring when the ringed seals give birth to pups beneath stable snowdrifts on land-fast sea ice.
In summer we observe polar bears hunting in the marginal ice zone. This coincides with the arrival of the walrus herds, and bears hunt them along with seals on and around drifting ice floes. I believe this is where polar bears thrive, because they can catch napping prey on ice floes, or use the floes for cover to catch animals in the water.
Some polar bears will also stay on the coast in the summer months, not trapped there by the absence of ice, but to feed on dead grey whales that have washed ashore, or on walrus and seals basking on the beach.
In autumn and winter some bears continue to feed on the remains of dead animals that have washed ashore. Groups of bears have been seen by our villagers establishing an over-wintering circle around a carcass, such as a grey whale. They also feed on the remains of bowhead whales harvested by whale hunters of the three eastern North Slope villages. The remains are simply a part of their natural feeding cycle.
None of the above hunting environments is on the multi-year ice “pack.” My point is, there is a yearlong and varied cycle of habitat, ice environment, prey animals and food sources for polar bears in our region, including marginal ice zones, shorelines, inland areas, leads, and multi-year ice.
Polar Bear Population Estimates
Scientists have documented bear denning on the pack ice in the central Beaufort Sea and those dens, subsequently, drifting with the pack ice. This observation is significant because the ice rotates in a clockwise gyre-like fashion here.
In the span of several months, a den had drifted from the central Beaufort Sea to the Russian Far East. The mother and cub(s) emerged from the den and made a beeline back to the Beaufort. What does this portend? Dens drift and there may be flux between population stocks. In this case, the mother and cub covered probably three different stock areas in the space of a few seasons.
For other reasons, the bears cover huge geographical distance, and there must be movement between the stocks as they follow their opportunistic hunting style. This is important to know. If this is the case, one cannot conclusively ascribe changes in the population of a given stock to any cause, be it environmental change, industrial influence and hunting, unless we know the flux of bears between the stocks, such as the Beaufort, Chukchi and arctic Canadian.
One cannot conclude that polar bears are in danger of extinction. Arctic coastal residents see a great many polar bears, and have observed no decline in numbers or range in our region. Our traditional and historical knowledge taught us that polar bears are extremely adaptive and opportunistic.
Polar Bear Cannibalism
We Inupiat were taught that a male polar bear will eat anything; it will eat a female bear or a bear cub, even when alternative food sources exist.
Poaching Of Polar Bears
Federal harvest data show that the take of polar bears by Inupiat people is sustainable. For example, Inupiat Eskimos take about 45-50 bears from the Chukchi stock. Yet the same stock is suffering from poaching on the Russian side, with catch numbers thought to be around 200 per year. If we really want to protect the species, let’s do something about polar bear poaching by other countries.
The Polar Bear As An Icon Vs. Village Life In Northern Alaska
A threatened listing for the polar bear will do little to aid their existence. It will not create more ice cover. It will not change their ability to locate dens or prey. But it will negatively and disproportionately affect the lives of the people, the Inupiat Eskimos, who coexist with the polar bear in the Alaskan arctic. Our communities will run the risk of becoming “Critical Habitat” and may be limited by the subjective process invoked by the ESA. While America sleeps better at night, falsely believing they have assisted this iconic species, they will still fly planes, drive cars, and power their homes.
If the Inupiat people must pay for the plight of the polar bear, why doesn’t anyone else have to?