‘I moved into the polar bear world in 1980. I was one of the few people in the US federal government at that time who had any active experience working with bears and so I was asked if I’d like to go to Alaska and get this faltering polar bear research project going, and I said, ‘Yeah, pick me, pick me!’
I was in charge of polar bear research in Alaska for 30 years. In the early 1980s, we were still trying to understand polar bears and how to study them. It was the early, formative years of figuring out how to go out on the sea ice and capture bears in a very remote and hostile environment. In my early years, one of the things I was able to document was that polar bears in Alaska were actually recovering from being excessively harvested in the 1950s and ’60s. I documented thriving populations up until probably the early 1990s, but then I saw a marked change as the sea ice began to retreat.
Most of what I did was launch from the coast and travel over the sea ice in a helicopter searching for bears. When you see a bear, you shoot it with a dart that contains an immobilising agent. The bear goes to sleep, you land next to it and then you have an immobilised bear that you can weigh and measure, put your tags on and such. It’s usually pretty predictable. But there were a few hair-raising moments.
The experience that was the most exciting was when we were doing a study in the late 1990s into whether or not we could detect polar bear dens under the snow with an infrared device. There was one den where we thought the bear had left and so we started searching to find the best way to get in – we needed to make some measurements. As we were moving around, I fell through the roof of the den. I looked down and within inches of my thigh dangling through the roof was the head of the female polar bear. I can’t repeat what it was that I said, but you can probably imagine. Interestingly, and to me this is pretty profound, she didn’t just bite me. She looked up at me for a moment with this almost quizzical look. That gave me a moment to throw my upper body out of the den. I started rolling down the hill and she came lunging out and started to chase after me, but she didn’t go very far. I guess she figured that this rolling person wasn’t much of a risk.
I was a dyed-in-the-wool researcher for 30 years on polar bears, and for ten or 15 years before that, working on other species. But by 2010, I realised that while there are still things we could learn about polar bears, we already knew the answer to what we needed to do to save them. So at that point, I thought it was time for me to move out of the total research world and into the world of conservation.
I dedicated myself to putting together another team and coming up with a paper that was published in Nature in 2010. It showed that if we stayed on our current path, we could probably lose two thirds of the world’s polar bears by the middle of this century, but if we mitigated greenhouse gas rise and halted the rise in the concentration of CO2, then we could make a major difference.
We know that we can halt the rise of greenhouse gases. We do have the answers. But what we need is policy leadership. I have to say that I’m not as optimistic about that as I was a few years ago. At the time of the Paris climate accord, I was really feeling pretty good, but as you know, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in leadership here in this country [USA] and not a whole lot of follow through in many other parts of the world. So I’m not as optimistic as I used to be, but I am still very hopeful. At PBI, we view polar bears as messengers to the rest of us, because if we are successful in saving polar bears, it will benefit the rest of life on Earth, including ourselves.’