While some of us dreamed of being pilots, firefighters, princes and princesses, policewomen or bakers, Dr Steven Amstrup’s childhood dream was always to work with bears. Today, with 40 years of experience in the field of wildlife and conservation, he is one of the world’s leading scientists in all things polar bear related at the head of Polar Bears International. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management and a Master’s in Biology focusing on black bears, he further earned a PhD in Wildlife Management. Dr Amstrup first kick started his career in the US Fish and Wildlife service, who were at the time hoping to breathe new life into the field of polar bear research; he took a leap of faith into his childhood dream and never looked back.
To this day, Dr. Amstrup’s childhood enchantment of these majestic creatures hasn’t eroded in the slightest. He says “The sea ice environment on which polar bears depend for catching their seal prey looks more like the moon than other earthly habitats. Even after years of working with bears, every sighting still catches my breath a bit. Most of my work involved capturing, weighing, and measuring polar bears out on the sea ice. Few people get to actually hold these magnificent bears in their hands, and the thrill of that never fades.” For the better part of 40 years, he has worked alongside these magnificent animals, yet in recent years, he has observed a turn in the road for the bears. In 2007, Dr Amstrup and his team’s research was instrumental in encouraging the U.S Secretary of Interior to declare polar bears an endangered species as a result of man-caused temperature rise.
Throughout his career, Dr Amstrup has been at the forefront of improving the quality and quantity of research with the aim of collecting data and better understanding polar bears, their habits, and the threats they face from climate change. He has seen first hand how global warming has affected the bears; spending much of his time in parts of the world that are most affected, places that very few people ever see. He says “the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This is having a profound impact on Arctic sea ice, which polar bears rely on for hunting their seal prey. The rougher sea ice with more open water will be increasingly difficult for young polar bear cubs to negotiate; they’re not equipped for prolonged immersion in cold water and can become hypothermic. Sea ice is becoming less and less suitable as a platform for pregnant female bears to dig snow dens in which to give birth to their young, and there has been a large decline in the survival of cubs overall. It is difficult to get away from the conclusion that as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear. Without action on the climate crisis, we could see dramatic declines in polar bear numbers by the middle of this century, and eventually, they could disappear altogether.”
According to Dr Amstrup, the first step to working towards slowing down the effects of global warming involved accountability from political leaders and an overhaul of structural policy. He says “Outreach efforts to reduce emissions and halt global warming have historically focused on individual actions like encouraging people to drive less, take public transit, or turn the thermostat down. Such efforts are important in showing we are walking the talk, and many of us are doing so. But these “personal” actions will not save polar bears.” He deems that global change starts with reforming agricultural practices, taxing carbon and in the long run, ending fossil fuel subsidies. He encourages individuals to not only take action in changing their behaviours, but even more importantly, taking action with their ballot; “we must vote with the climate crisis in mind,” he says. “In each and every election and at all levels of government to ensure the policy changes needed will take place. We also must vote in the marketplace to support businesses and companies that have shown they care about a sustainable future—for polar bears and for all of life on Earth.”
See Dr Amstrup and learn more about his work with Polar Bears at the 2020 Ocean Film Festival World Tour. Pulling into a port near you soon. Find out more HERE
Words: Celeste Botton