How to save polar bears? Maybe give them the panda treatment, say Canadian scientists

A sow polar bear and her cubs eat the remains of a whale at the bone dump outside of Kaktovik, Alaska, on the Beaufort Sea, in this undated file photo. SCOTT SCHLIEBE / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Polar bear experts meeting in Canada to discuss the fate of the animals in a warming Arctic have suggested feeding them in a list of possible human responses should the population significantly decline. One of the scientists told the CBC that feeding wildlife is common in management plans worldwide, and he also mentioned the whale carcass dump in Kaktovik, Alaska, as a bear-feeding success story. Reactions to the idea so far are negative.

The policy document, which is not a study, has various suggestions on how to manage the bears if they begin to starve. The ideas range from doing nothing and letting nature take its course, to rescue and rehabilitation.

The paper also suggests feeding the bears.

That has people in Nunavut talking.

“It's ridiculous, human beings feeding polar bears,” said James Eetoolook, vice president of Nunavut Tungavik. “Polar bears are wild animals. They're predators. They're hunters. Let them be.”

Some Canadian Native hunters, however, do not believe polar bears are endangered and insist that their numbers are increasing. Scientists say that's because decreasing Arctic sea ice is driving the bears onto land. Canada is believed to be home to two-thirds of the world's polar bears, though they roam across ice throughout the Arctic and are notoriously difficult to count.

New York Times "Dot Earth" blogger Andrew Revkin contacted Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta, one of the report's authors, and asked him if relocation and feeding of polar bears would be an "overreaction." 

Here’s the thoughtful and thorough reply from Derocher, who’s also the author of “Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior“:

"I don’t think the public views polar bears the same way as most other endangered species and this is one of the reasons that we laid out some of the options.  If there is a species where we may make extraordinary efforts, polar bears likely fit right up there with giant pandas and California condors.  The paper isn’t a prescription for what should be done but rather what could be done. ...

"All of us involved in polar bear science have received many e-mails with well-intentioned input from the public about what we should be doing. The usual options are making plastic “ice” floes but feeding polar bears is a common theme.  Shipping in “overabundant” seals from Newfoundland and Labrador is a frequent suggestion. I was particularly struck by a truck driver who contacted me with the idea of shipping all the dead wildlife he sees along the side of the roads he travels.  Moving polar bears is another common theme – sometimes north but often to the Antarctic (the latter obviously not an option). This paper was intended to generate discussion and hopefully, some planning."

Read more at The New York Times and the CBC: New report suggests feeding threatened polar bears

Yale University's "Environment 360" also takes a thorough look at the scientific paper.