Zoo News

Oct 13, 2011

Day 3

Day 3 (Tuesday, October 11, 2011)

Wow, what a day! My mind is whirling…but all for good reasons.
After one of our facilitators woke us up with a rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!,” we walked to the lounge car for breakfast. The song choice was a little misleading, as we soon found out that we had to hold each door tightly while entering and exiting the cars so the doors wouldn’t be blown out of our grip! Today’s weather is certainly different with the rain, strong wind (unlike anything I’ve ever experienced!) and bitter cold. While the weather is uncomfortable for us, the polar bears certainly don’t seem to mind it that much, of course.
After breakfast, we sat down for a Skype session with Dr. Steven Amstrup, PBI’s chief scientist, who has studied polar bears for more than 30 years. In recent years, he has provided research for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who in 2007 asked him to answer the question, “What is the future of polar bears?” Subsequently, Dr. Amstrup worked with a team of international scientists and together, they provided enough data to result in polar bears being added to the threatened species list in 2008. The scientists also collected enough information to predict that the world will lose 2/3 of its polar bear population in the next 40 years if we stay on our current path and don’t make any changes in reducing greenhouse gases. IUCN?
Today’s discussions were particularly interesting to me because of the controversy surrounding climate change. The notion of climate change occurring isn’t something new—in fact, it’s been understood for more than 100 years since the concept was introduced by the mathematician, Joseph Fourier. Only recently has the topic become a controversy—not so much a scientific one but rather a political debate. While the majority of scientists (whose life work involves studying the topic) believe that climate change is increasing because humans are producing more greenhouse gases, for a variety of reasons, some people feel they cannot do anything to prevent climate change from occurring…or that their actions even cause it at all.
What I appreciated most about Dr. Amstrup was the fact that he put scientific terms into layman terms to help clarify the data. He specifically cited the example of people not accepting the idea of climate change (global warming) if there is a cold spell in a place like Arizona. However, he explained that climate change is actually an AVERAGE of fluctuations in climate over a LONG PERIOD OF TIME (not just a rare occurrence once in a while). For thousands of years, weather has fluctuated as a result of many factors—changes in the North Atlantic Drift, El Nino, volcanoes erupting, etc.  However, the baseline of recorded temperatures over long periods of time has shown a steady increase. (More specifically, in the last 25 years, most surface air temperatures around the world have risen.)
What has also increased is the amount of greenhouse gases produced by humans. Now, it is important to note that greenhouse gases THEMSELVES are important…and necessary to sustain life on Earth. In technical terms, the sun provides the earth with shortwave radiation that the earth sends back to space as longterm waves. This balance has to be maintained. Carbon dioxide takes the solar energy and “bounces” it around to other things on earth that need it first—plants, etc. If people are increasing the amount of CO2 (which retains solar energy), then the longer the solar energy is “trapped.” This results in rising temperatures. Dr. Amstrup pointed out that the Laws of Physics state that as the amount of greenhouse gases rise, the world will warm. It is so scientifically evidenced that Dr. Amstrup stated that if anyone argues these Laws of Physics, he always asks them if they think people can fly in airplanes!
Scientific data shows that without greenhouse gases, the natural curve of climate shows we would be headed into another Ice Age. The best example he gave to bring all of this together was comparing greenhouse gases to a blanket. If we get too warm under the covers in bed at night, we take off our blanket to cool down. Greenhouse gases act as a regulator (like a blanket). They can help us stay warm, but if we are covered with too many blankets, there’s nowhere for the heat to escape. It is slowly released from the blanket itself…but usually not quick enough for us to maintain a comfortable temperature without becoming overheated first. Therefore, the extra layer of greenhouse gases that humans are producing are trapping in heat and causing temperatures to rise around the globe.
In 2009, more climate change reports released by Dr. Amstrup about the results of climate change resulted in a “doom and gloom” mentality among those who analyzed the findings. If the existing amount of greenhouse emissions have committed us to losing all seasonal sea ice in the future (as found in Churchill), would future greenhouse gas mitigation have ANY benefit to polar bears, who rely on this ice for hunting (and ultimate survival)? Scientists’ answer is a resounding YES.
Since polar bears have adapted well to live in harsh environments, some people believe they will adapt to a more terrestrial lifestyle and feed off berries and kelp rather than their main diet of ringed seals. Polar bears have been fasting during the summer months while the sea ice retreats since as long as, well…they have been polar bears. However, as mentioned in my previous postings, they need the ice to form by a certain time of year so they can begin bulking up to survive the winter and for females to be able to take care of her cubs (and herself). The fat (blubber) they consume from seals contains the nutrients to enable them to do this…berries do not. Many people understand that populations of giant pandas are declining due to habitat loss and the fact that they have a specialized diet of bamboo. The same thing is true of polar bears. They, too, are experiencing habitat loss (in terms of the melting sea ice) and they have a specialized diet of ringed seals. We don’t expect pandas to change…and we need to accept that polar bears won’t either. While pandas have become an icon for endangered species, polar bears serve as an environmental indicator on our own continent, showing us that climate change is occurring and that we need to address it quickly. By reducing our greenhouse levels, we can have an impact on preventing future habitat loss for polar bears.
Dr. Amstrup pointed out that if we look into governments on all levels (including city, county, state, federal), we’ll find that many government bodies are providing services to mitigate greenhouse gases. Some offer energy audits and others are introducing new programs to revise recycling practices, etc. However, many people are still unaware of these efforts even in their own communities. Governments are starting to realize that while previous arguments over the fact that green programs might be too costly, when compared to having to relocate thousands of people from Florida when the ocean begins to cover the land, it is best to take preventative measures now.
Dr. Amstrup reminded us to learn the difference between a physical possibility and political plausibility. He stressed that in no way are scientists trying to prevent businesses from operating successfully, which is what some people argue. In fact, he is a strong supporter of technology and believes we have the technology already available (or at least at our fingertips) to use some alternative sources like wind power and solar energy. These can be used to create new businesses, make current ones “greener” and even create more jobs. Regardless of political beliefs, however, 1,200 scientists who have joined together as a part of the International Panel for Climate Change, have the data to show climate change is occurring and that it is already affecting all of us. Moreover, it will continue to do so at a more rapid rate unless we start making individual changes and get involved in encouraging political leaders to support climate change legislation.
After we finished the discussion with Dr. Amstrup, we noticed that a female polar bear had made her way to our Tundra Buggy to get a closer look. After a while, she wandered into the willow shrubs to lie down. Dr. Amstrup’s points really hit home as I continued to observe her. While the Hudson Bay isn’t normally completely frozen by this time of year, it still shouldn’t take much longer. Of course, sea ice formation in this area is now being delayed. I watched her begin to eat long clumps of grass as she was lying next to the Bay…which contains her ringed seals that, in water, are too fast for her to catch. Following the body index card that we use to help us gauge whether a polar bear is healthy (1 is the unhealthiest while 5 is the healthiest), she appeared to be a 3…an average weight. This isn’t uncommon this time of year since she has fasted for the summer. She still has a couple of months to go, and if she has cubs, she will go almost 8 months without eating…and she will still have to provide milk to her young. So far, it seems she’s doing all right. I hope that a delay in sea ice formation doesn’t change this outcome.
After an afternoon spent driving in the Tundra Buggy (and observing four more polar bears!), we later had another Skype session—this time with Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological science at the University of Alberta. While he focused more on the biology of the polar bear and the differences in the bears contained in the 19 polar bear populations, he provided great insight into how NOT to feel too overwhelmed in dealing with the problem of climate change. He described the excess greenhouse gases as “pollutants.” The world has already addressed similar concerns, including acid rain. We have even outlawed certain chemicals. Reducing CO2 levels can be dealt with in similar ways
While I realize this posting is rather long and perhaps even difficult to follow, I feel it is important to address some of these points because this is why we’re all here in Churchill this week. Working at an accredited zoo, we are not in the business to exhibit polar bears for visitors to come look at for a couple of minutes and then move on the next animal. The point is to help people understand the dangers these animals face in the wild. We’re not only dedicated to caring for the animals at the zoo, but we’re also committed to helping their wild relatives.
The Arctic Ambassador Center zoos that are designing new polar bear exhibits (like the Buffalo Zoo) are following new regulations called Manitoba Standards. The beginning of these Standards goes back to the Polar Bear Alert Program. Problem bears were coming into the town of Churchill to raid the dump sites. The female bears were even training cubs to come to these areas. Wildlife officials had to decide–it was either shoot these animals (including the cubs who have learned the “bad” behaviors)…or start sending them to zoos.  When this first started occurring years ago, there weren’t many as many strict regulations set in regard to the bears. While some stayed at accredited zoos, others ended up at other facilities and had to be recovered and sent again to a different accredited facility. Now, however, Manitoba Conservation has revised its policies and formally introduced standards that ANY accredited zoo MUST meet in order to even be considered to house a polar bear from Manitoba. These Standards were formed by a large group consisting of people like field biologists, the federal Canadian government, Zoocheck Canada and others. Manitoba Standards require certain exhibit and holding size minimums along with salt water pools, enrichment, and management practices.

One thing is very clear. The Canadian government is asking for help in maintaining their polar bear population in Manitoba, and they are turning to accredited zoos that meet the appropriate Manitoba Standards for this help. Like pandas, who remain the property of China even when they reside in American zoos, the polar bears will remain the property of Canada. If standards aren’t met, the polar bears will not reside at these accredited zoos. 
The Buffalo Zoo is proud that its upcoming Arctic Edge polar bear habitat will be designed according to Manitoba Standards and that we will be playing an even more direct role in the conservation of this species. 
Most importantly, there are simple things that all of us as INDIVIDUALS can do to help reduce CO2 and also contribute to the survival of this magnificent animal.
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