Friday, December 29, 2006

How global warming affects Polar Bears

Yes, this is a grizzly bear blog, but did you know that polar bears are very closely related to grizzly bears? They have evolved from brown/grizzly bears only over the last 250,000 years to become one of the most perfectly adapted creatures on the planet.

I guide expeditions to the far north each year to the Norwegian arctic islands of Svalbard - just 600 miles from the north pole. It's an incredible landscape - surely one of the most beautiful in the world. But the most special thing about this isolated jewel is the population of polar bears that call it home. We generally see up to forty polar bears during each 10 day expedition, many of them hunting for ringed and bearded seals on the last remaining ice of the summer months.

2006 saw a surprising lack of summer ice - in fact, the pack was 100 miles further north than an average year, which meant that bears were more densely gathered around the few remaining sections of fast ice. It was a blunt reminder of the effects of climate change. I photographed the female and cubs below as they hunted seals on a quickly-shrinking piece of ice. Polar bears can not hunt successfully without ice - access to the prized ring seals generally happens in one of two ways - lying in wait over a seal's breathing hole, or stalking across the ice in a surprise attack. Once the winter ice has disappeared the bears have no option but to rest up and conserve as much energy as possible until the winter months bring back their icy hunting substrate.

Climate change is warming the arctic environment at an unprecedented rate meaning that the period of ice-free months is
lengthening. This puts incredible strain on the metabolism of a polar bear that is waiting for a meal. Incredibly, they can go for months without eating a seal, but as the days grow warmer, the polar bears are increasingly affected. For example, research by Dr Ian Stirling and Dr Nick Lunn in Hudson Bay has shown that for every additional week that a polar bear is land locked (away from the hunting substrate of the ice) it is 10 kilograms (22 pounds) lighter! Let's hope that today's proposed listing of polar bears on the endangered species act will help secure a future for this species.

Polar Bears Listed as Threatened

Excepts from an article written by Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; A01

The Bush administration has proposed listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, putting the U.S. government on record as saying that global warming could drive one of the world's most recognizable animals out of existence. There are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide, 4,700 of which live in Alaska and spend part of the year in Canada and Russia. The other countries with polar bears in their Arctic regions are Denmark (Greenland) and Norway.

Identifying polar bears as threatened with extinction could have an enormous political and practical impact. Because scientists have concluded that carbon dioxide from power-plant and vehicle emissions is helping drive climate change worldwide, putting polar bears on the endangered species list raises the legal question of whether the government would be required to compel U.S. industries to curb their carbon dioxide output.

This move stems from the fact that rising temperatures in the Arctic are shrinking the sea ice that polar bears need for hunting. Northern latitudes are warming twice as rapidly as the rest of the globe, according to a 2004 scientific assessment, and by the end of the century annual ocean temperatures in the Arctic may rise an additional 13 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, researchers predict that summer sea ice, which polar bears use as a platform to hunt for ringed seals, will decline 50 to 100 percent.

The ice in Canada's western Hudson Bay breaks up 2 1/2 weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, giving polar bears there less time to hunt and build up fat reserves that sustain them for eight months before hunting resumes. As local polar bears have become thinner, female polar bears' reproductive rates and cubs' survival rates have fallen, spurring a 21 percent population drop from 1997 to 2004. Polar bears normally swim from one patch of sea ice to another to hunt for food, but they are not accustomed to going long distances. In September 2004, government scientists observed 55 polar bears swimming offshore in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, an unprecedented spike, and four of those bears died. In a separate study that year, federal scientists identified three instances near the Beaufort Sea in which polar bears ate one another.

Footnote: Researchers disclosed today that a giant chunk of the Canadian Ice Shelf has recently fallen into the ocean. This shelf has shrunk by 90% since the 1930s. Food for thought!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Brown or grizzly? Take a look

Many people ask about the difference between grizzly bears and brown bears. Technically, the difference is very small. Both species are Ursus arctos (as with all brown bears around the world), but the grizzly bear is a sub-species of the North American brown bear which means that its full scientific name is Ursus arctos horribilis. Generally speaking, if you get to within 100 miles of the coast, people start referring to this species as a 'brown bear', otherwise 'grizzly bear' is the way to go.

Another key difference between the two is behavioral. It seems that coastal brown bears have an incredible and surprising ability to tolerate human presence - sometimes at very close quarters. I escort small groups of bear fans to the Katmai coast of Alaska every year and I am always astounded at the viewing opportunities that they provide for us. A great example of this is below - a picture of a female brown bear and her yearling cub - sleeping eight feet away (yes, those are my boots in the foreground!).

Brown bears on the coast of Alaska can become very tolerant
of humans (human-habituated). Photograph by Chris Morgan

However, as I've spent my career teaching about bear conservation and how to behave around bears I'm compelled to share a note about these coastal brown bears and the context of the photograph above. The brown bears in this picture are on the coast of Alaska where thick runs of salmon mean that these normally solitary animals have become quite tolerant of each other over a rich food resource. In certain situations, they seem to extend that tolerance to humans, and will frequently come quite close to people during their everyday feeding activities. This is very different behavior to grizzly/brown bears (Ursus arctos) in the interior (e.g. Denali, Yellowstone, Glacier, North Cascades etc), where a much larger safety buffer is advised, and where bears don't generally become this human-habituated over rich food resources.

Generally speaking, close-up interactions with bears should be avoided at all cost (Wildlife + Distance = Safety). In Katmai, the Park Service rules sensibly stipulate that people should not approach closer than 50 yards to any bear, or 100 yards for females with cubs. Sometimes though, the bears have other ideas! In the case above the female and cub settled down calmly next to us for a sleep, and there were an additional 23 bears within 100 yards of us at the time! Our calm, calculated response to their approach helped to ensure safety for the bears and the people.

Brown or grizzly? Either way, interactions with bears can vary immensely and a knowledge of bear behavior is essential when determining the best course of action.

For more information on bear safety, please go to the GBOP website:

Written by Chris Morgan, GBOP Co-Director, bear researcher & conservationist

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ranchers and Grizzlies can coexist!

A recent article appeared in the winter 2007 issue of ‘On Earth’ magazine profiling Montana ranchers working to protect and live with Grizzly Bears.

The Madison valley is located just 40 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The area is a cross section of the new west; cattle ranchers, second home owners and a rebounding Grizzly Bear population. Grizzly Bears in this region may be de-listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Rancher Todd Graham is working with local neighbors to ensure the conservation of the biggest predator in the valley, the Grizzly Bear.

Click here to read the full article.

The article was written by Bruce Barcott, photo credits : Vern Evans

Kids in the Hood

Outside of Anchorage, Alaska a family installed an outdoor play station in their backyard. I’m sure that they expected other kids in the neighborhood would enjoy the equipment.

In fact, the very first morning, four locals did stop by to play.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Are you Bear Smart?

Did you know that bird feeders are powerful bear attractants? They love black sunflower seeds like we love ice cream. Or that compost and fruit on the ground can draw a bear from a mile away? And that unsecured garbage cans full of rotten food are an open invitation for bears to dine?

A bear that hangs around your house, farm or business becomes conditioned to human food and the presence of humans. They lose their fear of people and human-bear conflicts are inevitable. Once a bear becomes a problem they cannot be relocated and are often killed. “ A feed bear is a dead bear” so the saying goes.

GBOP developed the ‘Bear Smart Program’ to provide folks with the information necessary to ensure the safety of humans and the welfare of bears. You are invited to apply for ‘Bear Smart Certification’ by visiting the GBOP Bear Smart website

Some bear smart tips include: pick ripe fruit from trees, feed birds in the winter when the bears are hibernating, don’t leave pet food outside, secure your garbage in a safe area or use a bear smart container. Enjoy the presence of bears without making them a nuisance.

photo credit: Jim Frick
written by Dennis Ryan; GBOP Okanogan County Field Coordinator

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Skagit Valley Poster Contest

Kids love wild animals, and bears are no exception. This fall the GBOP's Bear Smart Program sponsored the Upper Skagit Bear Smart Poster Contest for students living within Concrete School District. Chris Morgan, GBOP Co-Director, and Nan Laney, Skagit and Northern Snohomish Coordinator, kicked off interest in the poster contest during two assemblies at the Concrete Elementary School in late October.

The assemblies were great fun for all, and the kids left with a lot of enthusiasm for participating in the contest. There were about 40 posters submitted by students Kindergarten through 6th grade. Not surprisingly, there were many creative and artistic perspectives on how we can avoid conflicts with our resident black bear population (which is the focus of GBOP's Bear Smart Program). This was our first poster contest and we look forward to further developing and expanding the poster
contest, as well as our relationships with kids, families and teachers in the coming years.

The best posters will be posted on this BLOG after the contest is complete.

Submitted by Nan Laney, Skagit and Northern Snohomish Field Coordinator

GBOP expands

Nan Laney, who has worked as the Skagit and Whatcom County Field Coordinator located in Washington State for the past 3 years, has recently moved her working area south to include the northwest part of Snohomish County -- the North and South Fork Stillaguamish Valleys that include Darrington and Granite Falls. Whatcom County efforts have been passed off to Jim Davis, GBOP Co-Director, who is spearheading a focused Bear Smart program in the town of Glacier, which is surrounded by the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and excellent black bear habitat.

In September, about 15 eastern Skagit and Whatcom community members who are involved in the GBOP's educational efforts joined GBOP staff on our second field trip to the Woodland Park Zoo for a weekend bear awareness event. These trips are wildly popular and attendees often reflect enthusiastically about the zoo trip at GBOP Community Group meetings for months afterwards. Our last zoo trip was in the spring of 2005, and we are working collaboratively with the Woodland Park Zoo to plan a 3rd bear awareness event for the spring of 2007.

Submitted by Nan Laney, Skagit and Northern Snohomish Field Coordinator

Monday, December 04, 2006

Grizzly Bear Sighting

In the North Cascades there are approximately 6,000 Black Bears and less than 20 Grizzly Bears. Grizzly sightings generate a lot of excitement due to their rarity. When a credible Grizzly Bear report is received, efforts are made to verify the accuracy and to follow up and locate the bear.

This August a possible ‘Class I’ sighting of a Grizzly mom and her two cubs was reported in the Glacier Peak wilderness area. Sighting reports are rated by their credibility, accuracy and qualifications of the reporting party. A ‘Class I’ sighting is the highest rating and is most likely a Grizzly Bear. Final status of this sighting has not yet been determined.

The folks at Conservation Northwest sent a team to the sighting area to place a remote operated camera in the hopes of capturing photos of the Grizzly family. It was a long shot. Grizzly moms can move around within a 250 square mile area. Though the Grizzlies did not show up for a photo shoot, some other animals posed for the camera. The photo above is a cute pair of Black Bear ears.

A rare visit by a Wolverine was captured by the camera and was the highlight for the team. These elusive animals are seldom seen in the wild.

Core wilderness areas are teaming with wildlife. When you are out hiking, animals are aware of your presence and stay clear. When you place a secret camera, the real show begins. Many thanks to Conservation Northwest for their efforts in obtaining these photos.

Written by Dennis Ryan, GBOP Okanogan County Field Coordinator.