‘It's Like a Death Watch' – Polar Bears Turn to Cannibalizing Polar Bears

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‘It's Like a Death Watch' – Polar Bears Turn to Cannibalizing Polar Bears

By Ed Struzik on EdmontonJournal.com

"We wish that all of us, the environmentalists and the government, could focus on implementing SARA [Species at Risk Act] to the fullest extent possible, so it can do what SARA was created to do: keep Canada from losing more species.

Kevin Burke was guiding a group of tourists along the shores of western Hudson Bay in late November when he spotted six bears in the distance.

Initially, he didn't know what to make of the small female among them that was bluff-charging a bigger bear in a stand of willows. But once the tundra vehicle got up close, he quickly discovered why the animals were so excited.

"First, I saw the pool of blood on the icy pond. Then I saw a male bear with something in its mouth. And then, when it turned towards us, I realized, 'Uh-oh, that's the head of a cub.' The mother was desperately trying to save it, while the rest of the bears were trying to get in on the action and feed on the remains. It was all over by that point. There was almost nothing left of it when we got there."

Having guided in the Churchill region for the past 24 years, Burke had seen and heard of incidents of cannibalism in the past. Like some Inuit hunters on the west coast of Hudson Bay, he doesn't think it's anything out of the ordinary.


A male polar bear carries the head of a polar bear cub it killed and cannibalized in an area about 300 kilometers north of Churchill, Man., in November. Scientists believe climate change has turned some polar bears into cannibals as global warming melts their Arctic ice hunting grounds. The U.S. recently listed polar bears as a threatened species.
Photograph by: Iain D. Williams, Reuters, Edmonton Journal

Scientists who have been studying polar bears in the region, however, believe that this event, and seven other acts of cannibalism recorded in the area this fall, are more signs that climate change is taking its toll on the bears of western Hudson Bay.

"I've been studying polar bears in this region for 35 years, and prior to this fall, I personally knew of only one cub, and two other adults that were victims of cannibalism in that time," says Ian Stirling, retired from the Canadian Wildlife Service and now an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta.

"To get eight in one year is really dramatic, especially when the bears came off the ice this year in fairly good shape. Breakup was later this year than it has been for a few years, so they had the extra time to hunt seals and put on weight before the ice went out. But it apparently wasn't enough to sustain all of them until freeze-up, which was particularly late this year."

Polar bears in western Hudson Bay need to fast on their stored fat reserves for at least four months when the ice breaks up and disappears in late spring and early summer.

The longer the bears need to stay ashore, the more they use up those reserves.

This year's late freeze-up is typical of a trend that has been developing over the past decade.

According to research conducted by scientist Andrew Derocher and his team at the University of Alberta, nearly three-quarters of the western Hudson Bay polar bear management zone should have been covered by ice during the first week of December. But this year, only 21 per cent of the area was frozen by that time.

The polar bears of western Hudson Bay are not the only populations that are having trouble coping with thinning ice.

Mounting evidence suggests that bears of southern Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea are getting hard hit as well.

Scientists in Alaska and Canada, for example, recently reported four cases of cannibalism (three on adult females, and one yearling), three bears that starved to death, and a number of bears that drowned during a storm that hit while they were swimming in open water.

They are also seeing more bears denning on land because the ice is too unstable for them to dig secure maternity dens offshore.

Disturbing as this all may be, it should not come as a surprise.

More than two years ago, a blue-ribbon panel of U.S. government-commissioned scientists warned the former Bush administration that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050 if the Arctic continues to warm at the pace that climatologists are predicting.

By that time, most of the bears in the western Hudson Bay, southern Hudson Bay and the southern Beaufort Sea are likely to be gone.

Accepting this projection as valid, the U.S. recently listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species.

It banned the importation of polar bear products and issued a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the coast of some parts of Alaska until it can be determined whether these activities will harm the animals.

The polar bear specialist group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an organization that represents polar bear scientists, the Inuit and representatives from each of the polar bear nations, had already made the same decision by designating the polar bear as globally threatened.

Environmentalists along with most of the world's polar bear scientists think that Canada should be taking action as well.

But since becoming law in 2003, the Species at Risk Act (SARA) has performed more like a lamb than the lion that scientists and environmentalists had hoped it would be. They hoped it would help wildlife recover from the devastating effects of climate change, habitat loss, pollution and overharvesting,

In dozens of cases, the federal government has either stalled, delayed or evaded taking legal protection for species that dwell on federal land.

It has also never used the so-called "safety net," which gives it the power to protect species that may be at risk and not protected in any meaningful way in a province or territory.

In fact, the federal government has sometimes fought so hard not to do anything that a Federal Court of Canada justice recently ruled that Environment Minister Jim Prentice was in "clear contravention of the law" in one case that is likely to apply to many others.

"It's like a death watch," says Susan Pinkus, a biologist for Ecojustice, the environmental law group that went to court on behalf of several environmental groups recently to force the government to set aside critical habitat for the greater sage grouse and for the Nooksack dace, a small fish that dwells in a handful of freshwater streams in British Columbia.

"Instead of working to protect Canada's endangered species, the federal government is working to evade the law intended to protect them."

Under the Species at Risk Act, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife (COSEWIC) is the authority that identifies and assesses wildlife that may be in trouble.

To date, scientists on the committee have listed 585 species. Of those, 250 are considered to be endangered, 150 threatened, 162 of special concern and 23 are extirpated, meaning they are no longer found in the wild in Canada. Thirteen wildlife species are extinct.

It is the government, however, that has the sole power to determine whether those species get legal protection. So far, largely for cultural, economic and political reasons, the government has not given more than a quarter of them the legal protection that scientists insist they need. The government's record for developing action and management plans to help wildlife recover is even worse.

Using the best-case scenario that Environment Canada paints, critical habitat on federal lands has been identified in only nine cases so far. What's more, eight of those are located in national parks where the habitat was already protected.

Now that a five-year parliamentary review of SARA is underway, many scientists, lawyers and environmentalists are wondering whether the same fate awaits hundreds of other species that are at risk of becoming extinct or extirpated. They also wonder whether it will ultimately be left up to the courts to force the government to apply legal protection for wildlife when it is needed.

The Species at Risk Act "itself has a lot of potential," says Ted Cheskey of Nature Canada, part of a coalition of non-government organizations that have weighed in on the five-year review.

"It requires the government to identify and protect habitat in which species need to survive and recover. And habitat loss, we know, is the reason why 84 per cent of the species on the list are in trouble. But so far, we've seen little progress in his area."

Most everyone realized when the legislation was passed that the government would face a lot of challenges, especially when it came to legally protecting species that have economic or subsistence value for Inuit and First Nations people.

This proved to be more the case than most everyone imagined.

In a scientific paper recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, for example, Scott Findlay, a University of Ottawa biologist, and his colleagues showed that species such as the Atlantic cod, which has declined by as much as 99 per cent in some regions, were less likely to be listed if they had commercial or subsistence harvesting value.

In a separate study done for the same journal, Jeff Hutchings and Marco Festa-Bianchet, the current and past chairmen of COSEWIC, found there was also a significant bias against listing any fish or mammal that dwells in the Canadian North. None of the 10 Nunavut species on COSEWIC's list, for example, are on the SARA registry.

It's not as if this was all dropped on the government's shoulders in 2003 when the Species at Risk Act went into force.

Even before legislation came into effect, hundreds of studies had raised the red flag, warning the government that wildlife from all across the country were threatened or on the brink of extinction.

In the 1960s, for example, there were an estimated 26,000 Peary caribou inhabiting the islands of the High Arctic. The animal is found only in Canada.

A series of catastrophic freeze-ups in the 1970s and 1990s, however, resulted in most of the animals starving to death because they could no longer crater through the hard snow and ice on land to get food.

In response to this precipitous decline, COSEWIC classified the Peary caribou as threatened way back in 1979. Then, as numbers continued to drop, it declared the animals on Banks Island and the Queen Elizabeth Islands as endangered in 1991. COSEWIC confirmed their sorry state when it reassessed the status of the animal in 2004.

Despite this 45-year decline, virtually nothing has been done to help the Peary caribou recover. There are now, at best, no more than 2,000 animals left.

No one knows for sure because the Canadian Wildlife Service stopped monitoring the fate of the species back in the 1990s when the Edmonton-based scientist responsible retired and was not replaced. That left the cash-strapped Northwest Territories and Nunavut governments to pick up the slack.

Environmentalists say the government's latest excuse for doing nothing about Peary caribou is inexcusable. The government claims the Inuit and the Nunavut government were not adequately consulted when COSEWIC commissioned its last review in 2004.

"That was six years ago," says Pinkus. "All they've done so far is get a memorandum of understanding with Nunavut. In the meantime, the species is on the brink of extinction."

In light of what has happened to the Peary caribou, there is growing concern that the polar bear and many other species in the Canadian North will suffer a similar fate.

The polar bear was first listed as species of concern in 1991, long before climate change in the Arctic became an international concern.

Even since it became clear that climate change was likely to destroy much of the polar bear's habitat in some areas of Canada, little has been done to soften the blow.

Instead of developing a management plan to help the animals cope with the changes, the former Liberal government dropped the polar bear off the SARA list in 2004, once again claiming that COSEWIC failed to consult the Inuit.

Given the polar bear's iconic status in the climate-change saga, scientists had hoped the federal government would have taken the lead in what is rapidly becoming an international cause celebre on the global warming front.

But that hope is fading fast.

Virtually nothing significant, for example, came out of a round table on the future of the polar bear that was convened by Environment Minister Prentice nearly a year ago in Winnipeg.

Nor was anything meaningful accomplished in Norway shortly afterward when the polar bear nations met to discuss strategies. All Canada did was promise to work with Greenland to manage the Baffin Bay population.

In fact, Canadian government delegates at that meeting behaved so badly that one Norwegian government adviser wrote an editorial in the journal Polar Research in which he wondered whether Canada has now replaced the U.S. as the

"bad guy" in efforts to conserve the animal.

To the chagrin of many scientists, there seem to be no bounds to the lengths to which the Canadian government will stall, delay or obfuscate when it comes to using legal action to help animals at risk.

Woodland caribou populations in Canada, for example, have been rapidly declining for the past three decades.

The science in this case is clear as it's ever going to be. Oil and gas and forestry developments are altering the landscape in a way that is favouring other ungulates and predators at the caribou's expense.

Environment Canada, however, recently decided that a review of the data needed to be done before it would do anything. So it commissioned 30 scientists to review the literature and provide recommendations that could be used to launch action under the auspices of SARA.

Most everyone involved in the process expected that would be the end of the stalling.

But when the scientists issued their report last spring, Environment Canada once again claimed it could do nothing because First Nations were not consulted. The department also claimed that not enough is known about the "spatial distribution" of caribou to warrant identification of critical habitat.

Like other scientists on the advisory committee, Mark Hebblewhite, a University of Montana scientist, insists that consulting with First Nations was never part of the mandate.

Now he wonders what it will take to get the Canadian government to move on this issue.

"Thirty of the top boreal ecologists in the world weighed in on this," he says. "The recommendations should have been untouchable. But somehow Environment Canada found a way to defer taking action.

"What they're asking for is almost impossible to put down in numbers," he added.

"Woodland caribou are very cryptic, mysterious animals. They live in miserable conditions and they are almost never seen. In some cases, we have satellite data that pinpoint their locations in incredible detail. In other cases, we have nothing at all. Plus, we have more than 60 herds scattered across the country. What Environment Canada is asking for would take years, if not decades to document. By that time, they'll all be gone."

One "threatened" woodland caribou herd, in fact, has already disappeared. The last of Banff National Park's dwindling herd died in an avalanche last spring.

Hebblewhite is not alone in wondering how the Canadian government could allow this to happen in a national park where launching action under SARA should be relatively easy.

"I think the recent court rulings (on greater sage grouse and Nooksack dace) about SARA es pecially make the case of caribou conservation in the Rockies especially interesting because it's so completely obvious from a legal perspective that Environment Canada has completely dropped the ball on the legislated action required in the recovery planning process for southern mountain caribou," says Hebblewhite.

The demise of the greater sage grouse in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan has also been well documented.

Last year, the population in Alberta dropped by 20 per cent, leaving just 66 males on the leks (courting areas) in the spring of 2009. The decline suggested the birds could be extirpated by 2015 if nothing was done to protect them from oil and gas developments, which fragment their habitat.

So far, Alberta has done little to stop the decline. Realizing that the Canadian government was unwilling to step in and take action under SARA, the Alberta Wilderness Association and several other conservation groups went to Ecojustice to take the matter to court on their behalf.

In the Federal Court, lawyers for the federal government maintained that a recovery strategy under SARA was limited because the breeding grounds couldn't be identified.

The court, however, dismissed this as "unreasonable" given the weight of evidence proving the contrary. It ordered Environment Canada to go back and redraft a recovery strategy that identified critical habitat based on the best information available.

In B.C., Justice Douglas Campbell of the Federal Court went even further when government lawyers used the same excuse for doing nothing to protect the critical habitat of the Nooksack dace.

This is "a story about the creation and application of policy by the minister (of fisheries and oceans) in clear contravention of the law, and a reluctance to be held accountable for failure to follow the law," he ruled.

Jason Unger, counsel for the Environmental Law Centre of Alberta, suggests that the rulings have major implications for woodland caribou and for how government will act in enforcing the rules under SARA in the future.

Other legal experts are warning that the rulings could have major implications for investment in the resource sector.

Lawyers for the Calgary law firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, for example, recently mused on their website that companies making investment decisions in Canada must now "carefully consider the potential delay risk associated with unfulfilled obligations under SARA."

Just how the federal government will respond is unclear.

Neither Environment Minister Prentice nor any senior government official with responsibility for SARA was willing to be interviewed.

But an Environment Canada media relations spokesperson insists the government is doing a good job and that progress is being made.

"Since the act came into force, the government has increased the number of species on the List of Wildlife Species at Risk from 233 to 447," says Tracy Lacroix-Wilson.

"Considerable effort continues to be made on the part of the federal, provincial and territorial governments to prepare recovery strategies, management plans and/or action plans for listed species. It has also posted recovery strategies for 115 species on the Species at Risk Public Registry, begun work on over 200 recovery strategies, and delivered over 1,600 stewardship projects to benefit species at risk."

Lacroix-Wilson also points out that responsibility for the conservation of wildlife in Canada is shared between the federal and provincial/ territorial governments. The implication is that the federal government is not solely responsible for the welfare of these animals.

This kind of talk infuriates Pinkus and her colleagues.

"This would be a lot easier to accept if provinces like B.C. and Alberta had provincial legislation to protect and recover species at risk and their habitat," she says.

"Since they don't, we expect the federal government to step in and provide effective protection for species at risk unfortunate enough to have habitat in these laggard provinces, until the provinces provide that effective protection themselves.

"The government can describe good work they do on SARA implementation," she adds. But it is not the whole picture"

Caught in the middle of this is COSEWIC.

By most accounts, the organization of scientists has done a pretty good job given the meagre resources it has at its disposal. Unlike the United States, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are often spent to determine if a species is in trouble, similar studies in Canada are done for a fraction of the cost.

But COSEWIC has not always been consistent in the way it goes about its business. Scientists on the committee, for example, have been willing to subdivide some species into regional categories. That has allowed them to pronounce certain populations of beluga whales, like those in Ungava Bay, as endangered, while others further north in the Arctic appear to be doing well.

But the organization balked at doing the same for the polar bear even after two of the world's top scientists in the field published a report, which suggested that the populations should be broken down into five management zones.

That would have allowed COSEWIC to recommend that the bears of western and southern Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea be listed as threatened, a move that would have put more pressure on the government of Canada to do something.

To make matters worse, the committee hired a climate change skeptic to co-write the report.

As things stand now, no one -- not the Inuit, the Nunavut government, environmentalists nor scientists -- is happy with the status quo on the polar bear, which hasn't changed since 1991.

Hutchings, the COSEWIC chairman, acknowledges that the listing of the polar bear was one of the most difficult decisions COSEWIC has had to make under his tenure.

Although he defends the decision, he is critical of the assessment process. Too much time is spent dealing with socio-economic issues at the expense of a recovery strategy early in the game, he says.

That said, Hutchings is hopeful the bias against listing northern species will end now that a memorandum of understanding has been signed with Nunavut.

"I am personally willing to cut Nunavut some slack because it does seem clear that the pre-listing consultations being undertaken under SARA were inconsistent with the consultation requirements stipulated under the Nunavut Land Claims agreement.

Festa-Bianchet, COSEWIC's past chairman, is not as optimistic: "If anything, the situation has gotten worse since we wrote that report. The problem is that the governments do not take it seriously; even when species are listed, things only seem to happen when lawsuits are initiated or threatened." He points to the lack of action on Peary caribou and on woodland and mountain caribou.

Pinkus agrees.

"The federal government has put considerable effort into evading their obligations under SARA, until we file a lawsuit against them" she notes.

"We wish that all of us, the environmentalists and the government, could focus on implementing SARA to the fullest extent possible, so it can do what SARA was created to do: keep Canada from losing more species.

"Instead, we are being forced to go to court to make SARA work. This is a ridiculous situation."

Despite the record, scientists and environmentalists are not giving up on SARA.

"It' still the best way of identifying which species in Canada are at risk," says Pinkus. "What we need now is for the government to accept the judgments of the courts and take the legal action that is necessary to protect these animals that are in trouble."