Canadian Arctic polar bears are swimming longer distances to find suitable ice in which to hunt seals and rear their young. Scientists are deeply concerned that such swims of several days duration, particularly in the Beaufort Sea, are the cause of population decline in the Arctic.
Canadian researchers tracked 58 adult female polar bears as well as 18 young male and female bears between 2007 and 2012 in the Beaufort Sea. Another group of 59 adult females in the Hudson Bay region were tracked as well. Since adult males typically remove their collars and their larger neck size generally makes it difficult to attach the collars, only the females were tracked.
Polar bears are swimming longer distances especially in the Beaufort Sea. Andrew Derocher photo.
Overall, the Hudson Bay polar bears, those including the Churchill population, rarely made long-distance swims.
However, in the Beaufort Sea, during times when sea ice dissipates, many of the polar bears made at least one swim of 50 km or more while 69 per cent did so in 2012, a record low year for ice coverage.
“More and more animals in the population are being caught in places that they just can’t stay – so the ice that they’re on is breaking up, the floes are too small, and they have to make longer distance movements to try to find better habitat,” said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta biologist highly involved in the study.
Researchers identified a total of 115 long-distance swims during the study, 100 of them in the Beaufort Sea, with the average distance being 92 km or thew equivalent of 3.4 days. Polar bears average swimming speed is around two km/hour. The bears have very little rest while swimming, rarely stopping and since swimming burns calories at a higher rate than walking, body fat needed for Arctic survival burns away rapidly. One female was tracked on a nine – day, 687 km swim lost her cub on the journey while also dropping 22 per cent of her weight.
Polar bear sow and cub swimming in the Hudson Bay. John Lehmann photo.
The polar bear population in the Beaufort Sea has fallen more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years, according to Derocher. The long – distance swimming could have a huge bearing on this data. “So it is a concern that this is probably one of the factors associated with the population decline,” he said.
However, the study found no direct evidence that swimming contributes to the population decline. The polar bears tracked survived all the swims recorded in the study. Researchers were unable to track survival rates of cubs whom may have been with them other than the one extended swim referred to above. Due to hypothermia exposure to cubs, mothers with young seemed to make fewer marathon swims the researchers noted.
“Polar bears are well adapted to swimming,” Derocher said, “but of course, not all polar bears are created equal when it comes to the ability to swim.” Younger bears do not have the insulating body fat nor the stamina for prolonged water journeys.
Until the 1980’s Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea always melted close to shore as summer arrived. With the ice edge visible from land, polar bears utilize that edge during migration as a way to manage their hunting grounds. As the Arctic warms and the summer sea ice edge extends farther and farther north, polar bears are forced to swim long expanses to find stable ice.
Polar bears will need to find alternate food sources in order to survive. Andrew Derocher photo.
The dynamic Hudson Bay polar bear population has adapted to ice completely melting in summertime by spending long periods of time on land and in the shallows. Reliant on other food sources, polar bears in this region, including Churchill, have adapted somewhat and continue to develop ways to augment their winter food sources. Beluga whales, berries, bird – eggs and land seal – kills are more common food sources these days for the animals.
Polar bear and ravens scavenge a seal kill carcass on land in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Brad Josephs photo.
Despite Scientists previous predictions that polar bears would need to swim farther as climate change causes chaos with Arctic sea ice, this was the first study showing enough data to actually show the correlation.
A retired RCMP, recently convicted and sentenced of illegally smuggling narwhal tusks into the United States from Canada, has been extradited to the U.S. on related money-laundering charges in Maine. A New Jersey man, Andrew Zarauskas has also was convicted in 2014 and is currently serving time in prison. Jay Conrad from Tennessee awaits trial.
Narwhals in the Arctic. National Institute of Standards and Technology via Wikimedia Commons photo.
Gregory Logan, 58, of Woodmans Point, N.B., is being held in custody pending his trial date of May 3 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine
Charges include smuggling of 250 narwhal tusks with a value of over two million US dollars into the United States by concealing them in false compartments in his vehicle. Prosecution asserts that Logan had been transporting tusks across the border since 2000 when he was still employed by the RCMP. He allegedly brokered the tusks to private collectors and then transferred the funds outside the US.
Narwhal tusks that were evidence in the trial of Andrew J. Zarauskas. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN photo.
Logan, whom was fined $385,000 and four months house arrest under an eight month conditional sentence, faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 US with the money laundering charges in the states.
“As this case shows, wildlife trafficking can involve millions in illegal transactions, compounding the damage it does to the wealth and diversity of life on our planet,” Assistant Attorney General John Cruden, of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resource’s division, said in a statement. By pursuing the criminal financial transactions that flow from trafficking, we are making [it] a less attractive and more costly enterprise.”
Narwhals live year-round in the Arctic and are a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Law prohibits importing narwhals, or any of their parts, into the United States, barring a special permit, under the Marine Mammal protection Act. Spiraled tusks, found predominately in males are actually a tooth protruding through the upper jaw, reach up to ten feet and can fetch nearly $100 an inch on the black market.
Co – conspirators Andrew Zarauskas, of Union, New Jersey,has already been convicted and sentenced to nearly three years in prison while Jay Conrad, of Lakeland, Tennessee, has plead guilty and awaits sentencing.
Andrew J. Zarauskas of Union, N.J. (left) was convicted of smuggling narwhal tusks into the US from Canada. Gabor Degre | BDN photo.
Evidence at trial showed Zarauskas, 61, doubled his money on the $85,000 he paid Logan between 2002 and 2008 for approximately 33 tusks. What was particularly egregious about Zarauskas’ case was that he was working as a confidential informer for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a separate case that did not involve narwhal tusk smuggling.
International Polar Bear Day is February 27th and Polar Bears International (PBI) is once again bringing to light various ways we can all contribute to protecting this iconic species as well as fight against global warming trends affecting polar bears in their Arctic habitat. One initiative you can take is signing PBI’s petition asking Congress and the White House to set fair prices for carbon and thus accelerating the transition to utilize renewable energy sources.
Each year in October and November, travelers make the journey to Churchill, Manitoba with Natural Habitat Adventures to see the world’s greatest concentration of polar bears, which congregate as they wait for the sea ice to freeze on Hudson Bay. Nat Hab partners with World Wildlife fund (WWF) to educate people about polar bears and climate change through a unique partnership—Nat Hab’s Polar Bear Expedition Leaders, who have been guiding bear tours for an average of more than 10 years each, receive training and resources from WWF’s top scientists, ensuring the best interpretive experience available.
Here are some of the top polar bear photos from this past season in Churchill to inspire everyone to contribute to the ongoing fight for their survival!
Polar bears in the snow in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Katie de Meulles.
Polar bear playing peek-a-boo with a Polar Rover. Photo by Nat Hab guide Justin Gibson.
A curious bear says hello to guests. Photo by Nat Hab guide Brad Josephs.
Polar bears in the sun. Photo by Natural Habitat Adventures.
Polar bear sow and cub in the willows in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Nat Hab guide Brad Josephs.
The snowy owl is the largest owl – by weight- and certainly the most photogenic with its’ regal white feathers and stunning yellow eyes. Birders and travelers from around the world venture north to the Arctic to catch a glimpse, and sometimes more in heavily populated years. Summers are spent deep in the Arctic to take advantage of the 24 hour sunlight that enhances chances to gather more prey such as lemmings and ptarmigan. In bountiful years when the lemming population is prolific, snowy owls can rear twice or three times the number of young. The two species are intertwined.
Snowy owl flying right into view of a traffic camera in Montreal, Quebec. transport Quebec photo.
Snowy owls are prevalent in Churchill during polar bear season in October and November. Last season, high numbers of sightings across the tundra drew the awe of people whom had ventured to the polar bear capital of the world mainly to see the bears. However, the magnificent owl always seems to create a lasting impression on the groups. Though the seasonal fluctuations are sometimes frustrating to travelers and in particular birders that journey to Churchill to see the species, there is a pretty basic explanation for the changes year to year. Why do we have these vastly different numbers in various seasons?
Lemmings in particular are a unique prey species for snowy owls. Lemmings prey upon tundra mosses and will remain in an area until their food supply has been exhausted. Unlike voles that eat grasses which replenish naturally fairly quickly, the mosses that lemmings eat take years to regrow. Therefore they move to another region and the predators such as snowy owls follow. The lemming population crashes after reaching a peak density and the owls emigrate to greener pastures or, at least those with healthy moss populations. There they will usually find lemming populations…and the cycle continues. The theories that lemming populations decrease due to predators such as foxes, owls and other raptors in a region is simply not true. The available vegetation is the key to the cycle.
Polar bears in the town of Ittoqqortoormiit in eastern Greenland. Arctic Journal photo.
Eastern Greenland and specifically the town of Ittoqqortoormiit, have been forced to extend their polar bear patrols through the month of October, reports WWF Denmark, a conservancy.
The WWF-funded patrols had been scheduled to cease at the end of September, however due to the consistent high number of polar-bear sightings in and around the town of 500, the patrols will extend for an additional month.
After meetings between WWF representatives and Ittoqqortoormiit residents earlier in the year regarding interactions between humans and polar bears, the patrols were
According to the WWF, next year will see an expanded version of the polar bear patrols for local communities in eastern Greenland.