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Give the polar bears a break

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CHURCHILL -- Recently, some of the world's top polar bear researchers, led by Andrew Derocher, released a paper titled Rapid Ecosystem Change and Polar Bear Conservation. It discusses options for drastic measures to save polar bears in a changing climate, including relocating them to zoos, feeding them and even culling them.

I did notice one glaring omission from the various options "on the table." It is a fairly simple solution to help the bears, one that many northerners would support -- stop chasing them with helicopters.

For many years, Churchill has quietly disapproved of the amount of handling and drugging that our bears receive. Polar bears have been studied in this area since 1966, including an annual, long-term monitoring project that has run from 1979 to 2013.

For 35 years, polar bears have been chased and tranquilized by helicopter, weighed, tattooed, tagged, etc. By far, the western Hudson Bay polar bears are the most researched bears on the planet; far more than any bears in Nunavut. The generally accepted number is that 80 per cent of this population has been handled and tagged.

While many of us just do not believe there is no effect from all of this activity, there is research out there stating the drugs and such have little effect. Naturally, I have some issues with these papers but let's leave that for another time.

For now, let's use a study on "maternity den selection by female polar bears in western Hudson Bay."

It is co-authored by Ian Stirling, the world's leading polar bear researcher, as well as three very respected Canadian polar bear scientists. (It's actually hard to find a respected polar bear scientist these days!)

Anyway, this study found that handling directly affects the birth weight of female polar bear cubs. In short, the study found that when pregnant females are drugged and handled, the litter size and the weight of the male cub are not necessarily affected but the weight of the female cub is statistically lower.

Now, for anyone who has watched polar bears, we all know the male cub is generally bigger and usually is the one who gets mother's milk first. You almost always see the male cuddled up beside mom while the little female explores. It is good in a way as females end up becoming better hunters but, still, if there is a limited amount of milk -- the male has the better chance at survival.

"The consequences of such additional activity, at the individual and population levels, are not known but may vary with the intensity of the disturbance, the availability of other dens and the timing of the disturbance relative to the timing of parturition," Stirling concludes.,

A pretty mild statement considering you have just proven your research negatively impacts the most important part of the polar bear population.

Look at it -- a lower birth weight because their mother was handled and/or radio collared... this impacts potential survival, potential adult body mass, long-term reproduction, everything... including the health of the population.

This paper was written in 2004 (based on even earlier results from 1996 to 1998). These findings came out when the global media campaign to "save" the polar bear was really still in its infancy.

Since then, helicopter activity and radio collaring has only increased in the Arctic, thanks to new funding by Coca-Cola, World Wildlife Fund and Polar Bears International.

Let me be very clear. People generally support the efforts of polar bear researchers in the North. Everybody loves to learn about the bears. There are many, many northerners, however, who believe our bears are just "over-worked."

I mean, if we are to consider importing bear kibble from zoos in order to save polar bears, why are we not considering a ban on invasive research practices? We have absolutely no proof that kibble will help wild bears, yet we have statistically significant evidence that handling harms female polar bear cubs.

All we're asking is give the bears a break. In this era of extreme measures, shouldn't we, at least, consider it.

Kelsey Eliasson is a writer, artist and polar bear guide who has spent 14 bear seasons watching the polar bears of Churchill. For five years, he ran Churchill's monthly newspaper published occasionally, the Hudson Bay Post. Currently, he divides his year between the Yukon, Churchill and, occasionally, Riverton, home of Manitoba's largest moose statue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2013 A11

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