By now you have likely seen the report that polar bear populations were reported to be much lower than they actually are, “to satisfy public demand.” The notion that scientists would alter their findings to suit public emotions – because that’s what public demand ultimately is – is very disturbing, but also not surprising.
Polar bears have been used as a political pawn by environmental Chicken Littles and their allies in the press for about a decade now, going heavy on the hysteria and light on the facts. It started early in the last decade, with a report that found that the bear population of Canada’s Western Hudson Bay had declined by 25 percent in the course of a decade. But the polar bear’s range is far more extensive than Hudson Bay. They extend all the way to Alaska.
Yet, a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey of wildlife in the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain said that bear populations “may now be near historic highs.” This was confirmed by Dr. Mitchell Taylor, one of the foremost experts on polar bears and the manager of wildlife resources for the Nunavut territory in Canada.
“Climate change is having an effect on the west Hudson population of polar bears, but really, there is no need to panic. Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present,” he wrote back in 2006.
“This complexity is why so many people find the truth less entertaining than a good story. It is entirely appropriate to be concerned about climate change, but it is just silly to predict the demise of polar bears in 25 years based on media-assisted hysteria,” he concluded.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2007, polar bear populations have increased since the 1950s, when the U.S., Canada and Russia – at the height of the Cold War, mind you – agreed to a strategy to protect the bears around the Arctic Circle. At the time, the population was estimated to be around 5,000 bears. Now it’s 25,000 and may be higher.
So how did polar bears become a political football? If you remember Knutmania, it’s probably because the cubs are so cute. They become less cute when they grow up and can eat you.
It seems to have started with a September 2006 Reuters story which claimed that polar bears in the Arctic are threatened with extinction on the basis of a visitor to the Arctic who claims he saw two “distressed” polar bears. “One of [the polar bears] looked to be dead and the other one looked to be exhausted.” The witness wasn’t certain the animals were dead or exhausted, just that they “looked” that way. That’s some fine fact-based reporting there.
It shifted into overdrive in February of 2007 when several newspapers ran front page stories showing a mother bear and her cub on some ice. The picture quickly shot through the blogosphere and many news outlets as endemic of the meltdown of polar icecaps. Stories flooded the media how the ice was melting, depriving polar bears of their home. The New York Times ran the photo with the wrong byline, but the Daily Mail took the prize with a hyperventilating story that included the photograph:
“They cling precariously to the top of what is left of the ice floe, their fragile grip the perfect symbol of the tragedy of global warming. Captured on film by Canadian environmentalists, the pair of polar bears look stranded on chunks of broken ice. Although the magnificent creatures are well adapted to the water, and can swim scores of miles to solid land, the distance is getting ever greater as the Arctic ice diminishes.”
Now comes the inconvenient truth. The photo of the bears had been taken three years earlier, in August 2004, the hottest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, by a group on a mission for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, not Canadian environmentalists as the Daily Mail claimed.
The report on an exploration included the photo by then-graduate student Amanda Byrd from the University of Alaska as an afterthought because the ice had such a unique look to it. “Mother polar bear and cub on interesting ice sculpture carved by waves” read the caption.