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Ahpun, a female polar bear, strolls around her cage at the Alaska Zoo on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling) Ahpun, a female polar bear, strolls around her cage at the Alaska Zoo on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)  

An inconvenient truth: More polar bears alive today than 40 years ago

Author Zac Unger was originally drawn to the arctic circle to write a “mournful elegy” about how global warming was decimating the polar bear populations. He was surprised to find that the polar bears were not in such dire straits after all.

“There are far more polar bears alive today than there were 40 years ago,” Unger told NPR in an interview about his new book, “Never Look a Polar Bear in The Eye.” “There are about 25,000 polar bears alive today worldwide. In 1973, there was a global hunting ban. So once hunting was dramatically reduced, the population exploded.”

“This is not to say that global warming is not real or is not a problem for the polar bears,” Unger added. “But polar bear populations are large, and the truth is that we can’t look at it as a monolithic population that is all going one way or another.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide, living in Canada, Greenland, the northern Russian coast, islands of the Norwegian coast, and the northwest Alaskan coast.

Polar bears became a focal point for environmentalists after former Vice President Al Gore featured them in his 2006 global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” The bears were classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act to in May 2008 because their habitat was being threatened by global warming.

Unger wanted to write the definitive book on how man-made global warming was destroying polar bear habitats and leading to their extinction. He packed up his family and moved north to Churchill, Manitoba — called the ”Polar Bear Capital of the World” because of the large amounts of bears that congregate near it in the autumn.

“My humble plan was to become a hero of the environmental movement,” Unger told NPR. “I was going to go up to the Canadian Arctic, I was going to write this mournful elegy for the polar bears, at which point I’d be hailed as the next coming of John Muir and borne aloft on the shoulders of my environmental compatriots.”

“So when I got up there, I started realizing polar bears were not in as bad a shape as the conventional wisdom had led me to believe, which was actually very heartening, but didn’t fit well with the book I’d been planning to write,” he added.

In the U.S. the bears are protected from hunting by non-Alaska Natives — who can hunt some polar bears for tribal needs. There are also special importation rules for polar bears and polar bear parts and products.

Polar bears are also protected by international conservation agreements between the U.S. and other countries, such as the Russian Federation.

A federal court recently threw out a federal government plan to protect polar bears and designate a 187,000-square mile area of Alaska — larger than the state of California — as a critical habitat for polar bears. The court ruled that the plan went too far, and that the government needed to correct “substantive and procedural deficiencies.”

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