Polar bear scientist Ian Stirling, author of Polar Bears: the Natural History of a Threatened Species, has worked with polar bears for more than 40 years. His groundbreaking studies laid much of the foundation for both current research on the species and our present day understanding of them.
In this Q & A with PBI, he takes a look back at the landmark International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat—40 years old this year—and shares his thoughts on where we stand now.
Q: Did you attend the 1973 meeting in Olso when delegates wrote the International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat? If so, this would have been at the start of your career studying polar bears. What were your thoughts as a young biologist in being part of forging such an important agreement?
A: I did not attend that meeting, though I was working on polar bears by that time, having started in 1970. The Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) was small at that time and limited to two members per country while they negotiated the agreement. It was an intense time. The PBSG increased membership for Canada to three in recognition of the number of polar bears in Canadian territory and, not unreasonably, appointed the third to represent the provinces and territories (George Kolenosky). I became a member of the PBSG in 1974 and in 1981 (to my amazement, looking back) was the leader of the Canadian delegation to the meeting in Oslo, at which time the treaty countries agree to reaffirm the agreement in perpetuity. Regardless of the fact that I was not involved in the direct negotiations in 1973, I contributed to Canada’s input leading up to that and felt privileged to contribute to such a landmark agreement in arctic conservation.
Q: The International Agreement was sparked by concerns about severe overhunting of polar bears and, in particular, unsportsman-like methods including the use of light aircraft and tourist ships. Has the Agreement been effective? Did polar bear populations rebound as a result?
A: The only areas where unsportsmanlike hunting was a concern were in Alaska, where polar bears were being hunted from aircraft, and Svalbard, where they were being hunted from ships. The population in the Southern Beaufort Sea did recover following the cessation of hunting due to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the introduction of quotas in Canada in 1968 (simply because of concern about the possibility of overhunting by Inuit). All polar bear hunting was stopped completely in Svalbard in 1973. It is likely that the population increased a certain amount but, given that there was no reliable estimate prior to that, whether an increase could be really confirmed was not possible. Similarly, while it seems likely the numbers of some Canadian populations may have increased, again, there is insufficient information to confirm or deny it.
Q: Some websites and news articles state that polar bears aren’t in trouble—that there are now more polar bears than ever before. Is this because polar bears are no longer overhunted? Do scientists even know how many polar bears there were in 1973?
A: No. Such arguments, in either direction, cannot be supported with hard data. No one knows how many polar bears there were in 1973 or, for that matter, how many there are, worldwide, now. The concerns about polar bear numbers and, ultimately their survival, are related to climate warming, not hunting.
Q: The Agreement marked the first time that the five polar bear nations—the U.S., the U.S.S.R. (now Russia), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway—came together to resolve a circumpolar concern. Were delegates aware of the historic nature of the Agreement? Have they continued to work together on polar bear issues?
A: For sure, delegates were aware of the historic nature of the Agreement. After all, this was at the height of the Cold War. To a large degree, though, yes, the countries have continued to work together.
Q: Roughly two decades after the Agreement was signed, you and your colleague, Andrew Derocher, began to have an inkling that global warming was affecting polar bear habitat. Loss of the polar bear’s sea ice habitat from human-caused climate change has since emerged as the single greatest threat to polar bears. How does this issue differ from over-hunting in terms of solving it?
A: Overhunting is a simple issue to resolve if the governments in charge of issues have the intestinal fortitude to act, and, if data are not clear, then to apply the precautionary principle. Climate warming is a worldwide problem that will require a worldwide response to address. The differences are huge. When I started the long-term work in Western Hudson Bay, I was interested in large-scale natural environmental variations, or cyclic fluctuations. Fortuitously, this provided us with the background needed to be able to recognize what was going on with climate warming.
Q: You dedicate your recent book, Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species, to your grandchildren “in the hope that their world, and that of their grandchildren, will still include polar bears roaming the sea ice of the Arctic.” Do you hold out hope that this will happen? Do you think the world will come together once more to save polar bears—even though it’s a much more challenging issue?
A: I am, of course, still optimistic. I have to be. I am an optimist by nature. However, to be honest, I do not see a lot to date to be enthusiastic about. I think about this when I am playing with my grandchildren at their level and marveling at the purity of their innocence and interest in everything in the world. Maybe some of the Arctic will remain in place for them as adults, or even for their grandchildren, but it does require a bit of a leap of faith.
Q: What do we still need to know about polar bears?
A: How polar bears in different populations—subject to different environments—react and handle their problems. How we can minimize problems between humans and bears. We also need to continue to monitor those populations for which we have good data because they will be the ones to tell us what we might have to deal with in the future in other areas with similar ecological circumstances. We also need to determine how we might respond to large-scale problems as a result of sudden, large-scale ecological change, mainly the sudden loss of sea ice or drastically earlier break-ups.
Q: If you could get all of humanity—individuals, groups, communities, business leaders, and politicians—to take on action on behalf of polar bears, what would that action look like?
A: Reduction of total global warming to 1.5 degrees maximum or less and declining after that point.
Q: Even though you’ve worked with polar bears for more than 40 years, do you still feel a sense of wonder or awe when you see a polar bear? Do you have similar emotions about the Arctic in general and the other wildlife there?
A: If I ever see a polar bear that doesn’t give me a sense of wonder, it will be time to do something else. One of the main reasons I do ecosystem guiding in Svalbard is that I simply get to watch polar bears doing what they do. My sense of awe about this species is unlimited. I do also marvel at, and appreciate enormously, the rest of the arctic marine system, including ringed seals, bearded seals, and walruses. I love the polar regions, both the Arctic and Antarctica, maybe to an irrational degree. Both are in my bones and I will continue to visit them in whatever capacity I can, until I no longer can.