Warming to cold reality


December 04, 2008|By JANENE HOLZBERG

It almost sounds like a crazy answer to a game of Telephone, a twisted final version of a sentence whispered from player to player at a party.

"Female polar bears are having difficulty conceiving and feeding their newborn cubs due to global warming."

While that may appear to be a nonsequitur, it is actually an alarm being sounded by wildlife biologists: Mama bears in Canada are having trouble bearing and nourishing babies because a rise in world temperatures is shortening their hunting and mating seasons on the ice.

A county natural resources technician, who traveled to the Canadian wilderness to observe polar bears and learn about them from scientists, will link that observation to the threat facing a segment of the world's polar bear population as part of a presentation tomorrow called "Where's the Ice?"

Susan Muller, a 22-year employee of the Department of Recreation and Parks, will show about 100 photos from her trip as part of the free presentation at Recreation and Parks headquarters. Muller helps manage the county's undeveloped parkland and open spaces. She runs the frog-monitoring program, helps count butterflies and started the county's first Green Fest, held in April, among other duties.

The avid environmentalist loves to travel and experience wildlife up close. In October, she went on a safari in South Africa.

But it was her trip to Churchill, Manitoba - the self-proclaimed "Polar Bear Capital of the World" - that brought Muller face to face with the apparent impact of global warming on bears. The tiny Canadian village is on the western shore of Hudson Bay and serves as a stage where real-life wildlife drama is played out.

"I was seeing global warming right before my eyes, and I decided I would reach out to people to get them think twice about personal choices that affect the earth," said Muller, who has a degree in wildlife management from West Virginia University.

Muller went to Canada in November 2006 to observe polar bears in their natural habitat and hear lectures from biologists studying at the Northern Churchill Study Center. When she and the 12 members of her group arrived, they were shocked to see that Hudson Bay had not yet frozen, she said.

The bears eat only ringed seals that the males hunt by walking across the ice and digging through it to yank the seals from the frigid waters below, Muller learned from lecturers. The bears are being forced to wait longer than ever to eat their first food since the spring thaw, which is occurring earlier. Their icy killing platform is forming later and melting sooner, she said.

With the hunting season shortened at both ends, the female bears' average weight has been dropping over the years - from a high of 650 pounds to a low of 507 - leaving them either unable to conceive or unable to produce enough milk and supply enough seal meat to keep newborn cubs healthy.

There have been reports of bears resorting to cannibalism as they are deprived of hunting seals for longer periods, Muller said. Other reports claim some of Churchill's 1,000 polar bears, which are living at the southern limit of the species' natural habitat, are heading north in search of frozen waters.

Ken Clark, a software engineer and 24-year Columbia resident, also went on the Churchill trip.

"The polar bear is nearly identical genetically to the grizzly bear, but grizzlies are resourceful," said Clark, chairman of the county chapter of the Sierra Club.

Whereas grizzlies find different sources of food, polar bears havenot branched out, though they may graze on sedges, grasses and berries in the summer, he said. They are starving during the ever-lengthening months when they are in walking hibernation - not eating and not active, yet not asleep, he said.

But the real cause of the Canadian polar bears plight is the underfed females, Clark learned in one of the series of lectures. The ursine mothers can control when they become pregnant based on sufficient storage of fat reserves. The health of their cubs is also compromised by their ice dens melting sooner, allowing the mothers less time to nourish their growing babies before seal-hunting season comes to an abrupt halt, he said.

According to the Web site of the Canadian Wildlife Service: "It is clear that if the [warmer temperature] trends continue in the same direction, they will eventually have a detrimental effect on the ability of the [polar bear] population to sustain itself."

Global warming, which became a popular topic after the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary narrated by former Vice President Al Gore, is something individuals can work to reverse, Muller said.

After her 90-minute presentation tomorrow, she will open the floor to a discussion of "green" principles and will offer suggestions for "green" gift-giving, such as purchasing shade-grown coffee to help prevent deforestation and destruction of birds' habitats.

"There is something to the idea that the beat of a butterfly's wing in the rain forest is felt eventually on the other side of the world," Muller said of the concept that small changes in the environment can have large consequences.

"I would like to see people better tuned in to how their actions affect the health of our planet," she said.


What: "Where's the Ice?"

Who: Susan Muller, a county natural resources technician

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow (doors open at 7:15 p.m.)

Where: Department of Recreation and Parks headquarters, 7120 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia

Information: 410-313-4697

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