I knew I was in trouble when the biologist from the Manitoba Conservation Department sat down next to me. "The bears look good," he said. "I haven't seen them this fat in years." We'd both been hanging around the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, ground zero for everything having to do with polar bears. Every fall the town is overrun with bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. The bears, in turn, are trailed by herds of tourists, tour guides, scientists, green-leaning types and B-list celebrities—all looking for communion with The Most Important Animal of Our Time.
What worried me wasn't what the biologist had to say, but what the woman who had occupied that same seat three minutes earlier had said about the very same bears. A publicist for an environmental advocacy group, she shook her head ruefully. "It's just so sad," she exhaled. "They all look so skinny that it's hard to look at them."
I went north for a simple reason: I wanted to be a hero of the environmental movement and write a poetic obituary for a doomed species. The Center for Biological Diversity—the environmental group that sued the U.S. government to put polar bears on the Endangered Species list—had predicted that "two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be extinct by 2050."
But after months of reporting and hundreds of bear sightings, I kept running up against an inconvenient truth: There were a lot of well-meaning, well-credentialed scientists, wildlife officers and local experts who simply didn't believe that polar bears were one ice cube away from extinction. And they had the numbers to prove it.
Which was good news for the bears…even if it was terrible news for their careers as symbols of environmental doom.
Let's start with what we know. Almost everybody agrees that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears alive today. Here's another thing almost everyone agrees on: That number is a whole lot bigger than it was 40 years ago.
"Polar bears are one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world," says Drikus Gissing, wildlife director for the Canadian territory of Nunavut. "There are more bears here now than there were in the recent past." And since as many as half of the world's polar bears live in Nunavut, that's not an insignificant statement.
Exactly how much the bear population has grown in recent decades is a subject of intense debate. Some poorly sourced reports placed the earlier number as low as 5,000 animals world-wide, and in 1965, top scientists reported that extinction was in sight. By 1990, the consensus was that the threat had passed, and one expert declared the population could be as high as 40,000. Today, the pendulum has swung back to a gloomy forecast for the future.
The task is complicated by the fact that there isn't one monolithic polar bear population. There are 19 polar bear subpopulations world-wide. Between 1997 and 2004, the bear population of Baffin Bay fell by about one-quarter. Yet in Davis Strait, just to the south, the population has more than doubled since the 1970s.
And in Churchill, where tourists crowd into rumbling "Tundra Buggies" to watch polar bears cavort, the population fell from 1,194 to 935 between 1984 and 2004. After that 2004 count, scientists predicted that the population would crater to 676 bears by 2011. But a recent survey found more than 1,000 bears there, leading some government scientists to enthusiastically endorse increased hunting quotas.
Different factors account for the health of each population. In one area, a ban on the hunting of whitecoat harp seals led to an explosion in the bears' food supply. On the other end of the spectrum, one group of bears appears to be suffering because it has been hunted by indigenous people in both Canada and Greenland. Of the 19 subpopulations, some scientists argue that about one-third are decreasing and one-third are steady or increasing. The rest haven't been studied enough for anyone to know.
It's also important to remember that when people talk about decreases in sea ice, they're usually referring to summer sea ice. Nobody is predicting the disappearance of winter sea ice. Polar bears in the southern latitudes have been accustomed to ice-free summers since well before the Industrial Revolution. During these lean months, they don't go into caves but rather experience a "walking hibernation," eating very little and conserving their energy. If northerly bears start to have somewhat longer summers—as southern bears already do—the future might not be as catastrophic as some fear.
Despite the many real bits of heartening news, bad omens abound. Declines in polar-bear body condition have been widely observed. Recently it has become far less common to see adult females bearing twins or triplets. As Lily Peacock, a bear researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, puts it, "Some populations appear to be doing OK now, but what's frightening is what might happen in the very near future."
Still, there are reasons to be upbeat. For one, the idea that polar bears can survive only on seal meat has been called into question; diet analysis shows that polar bears routinely eat caribou, vegetation and waterfowl. Indeed, the population of snow geese in the north has recently grown dramatically, and one study suggests that the abundance of goose nests could offset some of the nutrients lost because of a shorter seal-hunting season.
Mitch Taylor, who published almost 50 peer-reviewed papers during his 21 years as a polar-bear biologist and wildlife manager for the territorial government of Nunavut, prefers to avoid speculating too much about the unknown. "We don't know what the future holds, but we do know that many current populations are stable. And we have to manage for what we've got right now, not what we might have in the future."
Management decisions must be driven by scientific data, of course. Yet the experience of people who know bears best can't be entirely discounted. I found that people who actually live in polar-bear country say, by a wide margin, that they're seeing more bears than ever before.
One night as Churchill's "bear season" was gearing up, I sat down with Kevin Burke, a man who has lived with polar bears all his life, as both a Churchill native and a ranger in the deep bush country. He has also spent countless hours assisting the Ph.D.'s who study bears and predict their imminent demise. "I'm just starting to resent being told that I'm not seeing what I know abso-flipping-lutely damn well that I'm seeing with my own eyes," he said (using considerably more colorful language). With polar bears, it's not always black and white.