Scientist on Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear Population: “I Consider Myself a Historian”

Dr. Nick Lunn in the field - Photo courtesy of Polar Bear InternationalPolar bear on the Western Hudson Bay –

My recent adventure participating in the Earthwatch expedition based at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre presented a unique opportunity for a one-on-one discussion with Dr. Nick Lunn of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Nick is one of a handful of scientists focusing their efforts, knowledge, and talent on studying the polar bear.

In other words, Nick is a polar bear expert.

Nick arrived at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre just as our team was finishing up their work sampling and monitoring snowpack conditions in the area. I and one other team member stayed behind an extra day waiting for the train to take us back to Winnipeg (a story in itself) and our lives “down south”, leaving just two CNSC staff, Nick, my fellow EW teammate Chris, and I fending for ourselves for the evening.

By asking Nick his opinion on the delayed decision by the U.S. on whether to list the polar bear as endangered, I had the good fortune of opening Nick up for what turned into a nearly two-hour discussion on polar bears, climate change, and environmental policy both in Canada and the United States.

Here are some highlights of our discussion:

There Are More Polar Bears Now Than Ever! At Least That’s What the Wall Street Journal and the Heartland Institute Says…

Oh really?It isn’t hard to find media reports stating that polar bear populations are at historic highs – up to 25,000 now from a low of 5,000 or so in the 50s or 60s. This gets a chuckle from Nick. Look in any of those reports for the source of their conjecture. The fact is nobody was even paying attention to polar bear numbers in the 50’s or 60’s, much less conducting a scientifically sound census survey.

So where do they come up with those numbers? Hmm… Good question. In the ’50s and ’60s polar bears were being shot, killed, and hunted down wholesale. It has only been within the past couple of decades that scientists, government leaders, and wildlife managers have realized that it might be prudent to put some limits on the carnage to assess what it is we have in the way of polar bears and to begin the serious, ongoing scientific study of them.

What happens when uncontrolled hunting is stopped? Gosh, it seems there may have been some recovery in polar bear populations due to the alleviated stress from hunting. (Incidentally, 500 bears are still harvested every year in Canada.)When you hear anyone authoritatively pronouncing that polar bear numbers have recovered from 5000 to 25,000 just know that they’re simply guessing. Right off the bat a reason to question the veracity of their argument. (And when the Wall Street Journal says anything about environmental policy, assume they likely don’t know a whit about what they’re talking about.)

Polar Bears in the Western Hudson Bay Region

Churchill, Manitoba is widely known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, strategically located in the midst of one of the world’s 13 polar bear populations. While it is possible to encounter a bear at any time in or around the Churchill area, the crowds come in October and November – bear “high season” – to catch a glimpse of a bear while riding in the comfort of a  “tundra buggy” (I say you haven’t really experienced the area until you’ve taken a ride in a dread sled – but again, that’s another story).

There are other attractions in Churchill; historic forts from the Hudson Bay Company days to Beluga whale watching and birding. But Polar Bears are what give Churchill a reason to call itself a “world capital”.This may not last for very much longer and is why Nick, studying the Western Hudson Bay population as he does, says he considers himself a historian. Those are his words, not mine.

The population in the Western Hudson Bay region has declined 22% in 17 years, to less than 1000 bears. The condition of adult bears has steadily been decreasing, with the average weight of females declining toward a threshold at which the chances of it bearing viable cubs become doubtful. As Nick explained, that threshold may be reached, if the trends continue as they have, as soon as 2012. The principal cause for the deteriorating condition of this population of bears is the early break-up of sea ice. Bears have to go further and work harder to find their principal source of food, the ring seal, and thus the female gives birth to her cubs more emaciated and less able to nurture her cubs. More cubs are not surviving into adulthood. The overall threat to the population is that current generations of bears will not be replaced.

Two out of Thirteen

Again, you’ll find plenty of media reports speaking to the thriving polar bear populations around the world. Just not from research scientists that are actually studying them in the field. Yes, by that I mean scientists that get their butt out from behind a desk, put on their long johns, and actually go into the arctic and get up close and personal not only with the bear but with the harsh conditions in the Arctic.

I encourage you to go out and canvas your own sources of information on this, but this is what I got from Nick (the polar bear expert, while we chatted near the arctic circle one evening): Of the thirteen populations of polar bears in the world, only two are considered as thriving, as many as five may currently be stable, and the rest are either threatened, in decline, or there is simply not enough data to make a reliable assessment.

Heck, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Maybe those giggling fools from the Wall Street Journal are right! Not bloody likely. The Western Hudson Bay region is one of the most studied populations in the world, so the data set for these bears is the most complete and accurate available. The low arctic region they inhabit is an ecosystem highly vulnerable to climate change, and so it is likely that what we are seeing with this population will continue to spread throughout all circumpolar bear populations as environmental changes in the north accelerate.

Who Cares?

The polar bear has become the poster child for global warming. When people think of global warming, they likely conjure up an image of a cute cuddly bear cub. In Western Hudson Bay, the chances are ever-increasing that that cute bear cub won’t make it to adulthood.

But does it really matter? If there are no polar bears around in a few decades, will it really change anything in our daily lives? Aren’t attempts to list the polar bear as endangered or threatened just liberal attempts to control our lives and put the UN in charge of us all? Isn’t this all just alarmist clap-trap by tree-hugging global warming fanatics? (Well, if you actually believe those last two statements then I’ve got nothing for you. Go forth and delude yourselves if you must.)

Polar bears are, of course, just one aspect of a finely balanced and fragile ecosystem; one that is stressed and changing fast. We ignore those changes in the arctic, to the polar bear, and all that supports and depends on it, to our own peril. As goes the polar bear, we have to wonder, goes the rest of the world?Then we’ll all be historians.

Further Reading
Polar Bear Institute

Photo Credit: Polar Bear International

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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  1. Thank you. This artical helps. Many responses I have received when broaching this subject are of the premise that the populations are increasing…now I can rebutle.
    Thank you. I am saddened, however, that the Polar Bears recognition now stems within the fight on Global Warming – they are magnificient beings, I wish they could remain iconic on that alone.

  2. I’m glad this post helped. I hope people you talk with about the polar bear can start to understand what’s going on a little better.

    I agree that polar bear are magnificent creatures and it is both unfortunate that their habitat is diminishing and it is through that the most people talk about them at all.

    • Hi i think that more people should show more care for the polar bears they are loving animals they should be treated better i hope ther is something being done for them and i hope ther is a place a safe place for the polar bears and ther cubs i just find this really sad

  3. You mention that no one was observing polar bears in the 50’s and 60’s. So when did the experts start observing? You mention a decline to 1000 in the western Hudson Bay over the last 17 years. Was it 17 years ago when the first scientists started counting? How long has Dr. Lunn been in this area studying polar bears? Seventeen years ago there were perhaps 1300 polar bears in the area and now there are perhaps 1000. Perhaps all the people showing up to the “polar bear capital of the world” is what caused the population to decline. Have other polar bear areas in Denmark, Norway, the US, Russia and other parts of Canada shown a 22% decline?

  4. Donnie,
    There were no formal scientific studies monitoring polar bear habitat and populations in the 1950’s. Widespread concern on the stress hunting posed to the survival of polar bears led to the signing of the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in Oslo on November 15th, 1973. Singatories to the agreement were the U.S. Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Norway, and the former U.S.S.R.
    Nick Lunn began studying polar bears in 1981.

    The 22% decline is for the one polar bear population I referenced in the post – the Western Hudson Bay region. Feel free to check out my references at the end of the post for specific population statistics on other bear populations (as I encourage people to do in the post).

    Since the early 1980’s, after hunting became more regulated, the concern shifted to polar bear habitat – observations since that time have only increased the concern as evidence mounts that polar bear habitat is under stress.

    Churchill, Manitoba has a year-round population of 800 people; that can grow, I am told, to around 8000 people during high season (it definitely wasn’t high season when I was there). While there are certainly environmental impacts from the tourism, people aren’t hunting bears from tundra buggies.

    As it was explained to me from Dr. Lunn and other scientists I have spoken with that study arctic ecosystems, as well as my own reading and research, the principle stress on polar bear populations are changing environmental conditions – mainly diminishing sea ice.

    It is useful to bear in mind (that pun just slipped out, sorry) that the polar bear is indicative of an entire ecosystem under stress.

  5. Tell me why then there have been study after study that says the ocean temperature is actually going down. 32,000 ocean core samples prove this and you idiots just use the retoric that the earth is “taking a break” and the warming trend will start again. This cooling has been going on for the past ten years. The southern ice cap is actually thicker now than 20 years ago and getting thicker every day. How much grant money do you get from your buddy Al “Bore me to death”. You are pawns for the elite left wing nuts. You will have us all riding bikes to work and wearing hemp clothing. If your fellow globalists like big Al were serious about what you believe in, then you would not have a 8,000 square foot house (i’m speaking of Al of course and it’s probably a lot bigger than that, not to mention that he has more than one carbon guzzling home) burning more carbon fuels in a month than the average family does in a year. Of course that old private jet is probably really fuel efficient that he travels exclusively on to spread his totally non-scientific garbage. You people make me ill and i think France or South Korea would be able to us your insane views a lot more than the red, white, and blue. You need to remember that this country is the richest country in the world and we alone have the ability and responsibility to extract and use fossil fuels in an environmentally responsible manner for our own use. Until we develop cleaner energy sources which we will, we need fossil fuels and have th right to them. Unless you don’t mind putting a burden on people who can’t afford $10 a gallon gas, we need to develop our resources now. Have a nice day.

  6. Lewis, I’m so sorry to hear that you’re feeling ill. I’d suggest you take a pill and relax, but I’d also like to thank you for showing our readers another great example of poor logic and argumentation skills, with some good ol’ ad hominem-based attacks thrown in. While unfortunately your little tirade didn’t relate at all to the actual post you attached it to (feel free to read it sometime), I’m happy to let you go on and on as you more or less show how poor argumentation works. Okay, I’ll respond to some of this: Please refer me to any studies you have read or know of (even if you haven’t read them) supporting any of your claims. You’ll forgive me if I don’t just take what you snarl out here at face value. Nope, my buddy Al (he says "hi" by the way) hasn’t given me any grant money lately. You might be surprised to know that there are people that think differently than you that don’t actually know Al Gore. But even so,,, Scientists don’t get grant money from Al Gore. Do you know any scientists? Go talk to one. But more importantly… You’re just gonna have to let go of Al Gore okay? Global warming wasn’t invented by Al Gore, he is not the source of the science, and basing any denialist argument on Al Gore is so (yawn) old. Catch up buddy – most of your denialist compatriots have moved on. It must be a little embarrassing to be so behind the times with your attempts at belittling, well, "me" I guess. But here’s the thing: You don’t know me. You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, and you, my friend, are the pawn – at least based on this little tirade of nonsensical thinking you’ve so generously shared with us. By the end of it you aren’t even able to put coherent sentences together. Nonetheless, this was a post about my conversation with a biologist studying polar bear populations. Do you have any insightful comments in that regard? Well, never mind, I can already guess. And my ears are already ringing from the noise. You have a nice day as well.

  7. Emailing on behalf of Natalie Fay from ITV news. natalie will be making a series of films in November in the Hudson Bay area. Is there any Scientists or science or research expeditions in the November period that could be of interest. Email me at

  8. Forgot to mention, the series is about global warming and how it is effecting the polar bear community and population ect. Would be great to hear more about projects currently worked on.

  9. Joshua, I’ll contact the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on Hudson Bay to see what scientists or research may be in going on in November. I did try to email you but it bouned back. If you happen to see this comment could you confirm your email address?

    Thanks! I hope I can help out.


  10. “The Western Hudson Bay region is one of the most studied populations in the world, so the data set for these bears is the most complete and accurate available. The low arctic region they inhabit is an ecosystem highly vulnerable to climate change, and so it is likely that what we are seeing with this population will continue to spread throughout all circumpolar bear populations as environmental changes in the north accelerate.”

    What you actually just said was that you are using one of the most sensitive polar bear populations (due to geographic location on the edge of habitat) to draw conclusions about other much less sensitive populations. To my scientific mind, it is ridiculous to use that as a basis for projecting what the entire polar bear population is doing. All that you know from this microcosm is that the Hudson Bay lost sea ice, possibly only temporarilly, and can’t support as large a population right now. And that’s about it.

  11. Thanks for the comment. We’ll see what happens, I guess, to the polar bear population as a whole, though I do believe in the article I related the conditions of the several PB populations throughout the world as told to me from Dr. Lunn.

    You seem to feel that the changing environmental conditions in the North of which I speak are limited only locally to the Hudson Bay region and that they are probably only “temporary” – can you, with your scientific mind, support that statement?

  12. Could it be that the human contact, tagging and other “research related” activities affect the polar bears in that they would like to live somewhere else???

  13. Hey GroovShadow,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m not quite sure what it is you’re suggesting – that polar bears would live somewhere else if it weren’t for the research? Hmmm… Not sure that makes a lot of sense (if that is indeed what you’re suggesting). You may want to do a little more reading on this yourself if you’re really interested in learning about the western Hudson Bay polar bear population, their habitat, and the research done. There are links you can follow on this post for more information, and plenty of other research available online and elsewhere. Good luck.

  14. Funny that your response is more childish than the childishness you were attempting to point out in another post.

    Lord help us all… what’s the “scientific” consensus on prayer again?

    • Thanks for the comment Bill. I’m not really sure what all you’re talking about here (prayer vs. scientific consensus, etc.) but now that I look at the comment I assume you are referring to, for which I replied back in March, I will admit that I shot back at Joy with unnecessary harshness. I should have just referred her to what she was looking for and left it at that.

  15. The issue here is whether or not the TOTAL Polar Bear population world wide is decreasing and by his own admission he doesn’t have the data to say so. All he can say is that ‘Of the thirteen populations of polar bear in the world, only two are considered as thriving, as many as five may currently be stable, and the rest are either threatened, in decline, or there is simply not enough data to make a reliable assessment.’ So 5 areas are stable and two are thriving. To quote the late Sam Kinison “I can end famine in Ethiopia with one word – UHAUL! Move where the freaking food is.” Polar Bears already do this. I would like to know how many of the 22% decline in this area just moved away.

  16. Despite the rantings of previous respondents there are still those like Todd P. who rise like Neanderthals to a rich chorus of bone-headed rejections of the warming theory.
    They are too illiterate to be embarrassed by their own ignorance.
    "Too dumb to know how dumb they are!"

  17. Maybe the little white fuzzy monsters should grow some balls and join their brethen the Grizzlies, plenty of Salmon to go around. Shit I would move south why not get some brains and get the blankety blank out of Dodge

    • Your ignorant comment, whether pursued because you’re a self-proclaimed internet “troll” or a downright imbecile is both amusing and pathetic. Polar Bears are ADAPTED to the climate they live in. They are the largest land carnivore and have a specific caloric intake they need to achieve and they can’t simply flip a switch and be able to live like a species they are diverged from. While fish are an acceptable snack, they are not suitable as a main meal. The amount of energy gained needs to be significantly greater than the energy used catching the meal. And because polar bears live in such a frigid climate they need a larger prey to meet those energy requirements and be able to fast and survive. Yes, it’s possible to move where the food is in some regions, but not as easily done so in others. One concern is that adaptation may not be feasible when climate change is happening at such an accelerated pace. Let us make educated comments, people! =P

      • Hmm, polar bears interbreed with grizzlies – so they are, in fact, grizzlies. They have viable young so are not hybrids like donkeys. Scientists do argue about this, but the (very basic) primary definition of a species is still a group of animals that can not have viable offspring with any other group of animals.
        Moving south for salmon is likely what they will do! Polar bears have been around for 10,000,000 years or so. They have survived frequent warming periods. This one, even if it happens as some project, will be no worse.

  18. you are a liar who knows no hard facts. did you think that mabey polar bear population was going down in one area and up in another? or that there was another reason than a fake theory proven wrong many times by tens of thousands of scientists and engeners that the tempture rise (if there is any) is from the sun, not CO2? or that the ice is melting in one area and frezing in another? or that the facts you got are not true? or that big companies are making 1000000000s of dollars from this? or that from this the kyoto treaty was made, something that has been trying to get places for years? or that………………………………….

    • Jordyn,
      Your extravagantly misspelled comment reels with crazy notions of theories proven wrong by “tens of thousands of scientists” and has a tenuous grasp of even basic scientific theory. And even with all that it appears as if you may want to go back and read this post again to see what is actually said.
      In the meantime, cite your assertions. How has climate change theory been proven wrong? What studies by what scientists? Why don’t you tell us about the various polar bear populations? (I believe there are 13) This post is about one – on the Hudson Bay. It reflects a conversation I had while at a scientific station on the Hudson Bay with a wildlife biologist studying that population – which one of us is the liar?
      Cite examples of companies getting rich on climate science (if all you can do is say “Al Gore” then never mind – you’ve got nothing meaningful to say).
      Cite your sources, get a dictionary, and stop calling people liars. It makes you sound like an idiot.

  19. Polar bears are creatures one of a kind and they deserve better than what they are recieving! Polar bears are one of gods amazing ceations! we need to protect them and any other creatures that may live in the habitiat in wich they live as well. I really dont think people care enough and that that is a major player in all of this mess. The polar bears arent the only things beings that are being affected! walruses are important as well. Along with seals! We need to protect the world in wich we live in and the beings that share it with us.

      • What are you smoking over there Sean? And what are you even talking about?
        Are you certain you want to assert climate science is a “fabricated lie” in front of an omnipotent God? From your litany of “troll” comments you’ve left for me it appears you’re less informed on the issues than even most other climate deniers. Perhaps you’re the one insulting God by not using your God-given brain as He intended. Just a thought.

    • The cyclic nature of naturally occuring climate change has never been in dispute or “hidden” from public understanding. To say that the arctic will “ice up” again in a “few years” suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of what is otherwise fairly common knowledge. You’ll need to try much harder to impress anyone. The line “don’t make me laugh about polar bears” is indeed a laughably ridiculous and ignorant statement that bears no further comment. Did you even read the article? (Don’t bother answering, our conversation is done).

  20. To save these little white bears, I am leading a low-carbon lifestyle. I have abandoned the car, and am leading a 100% bicycling lifestyle. At my Cycling Lifestyle blog, I am sharing know-how on the cycling lifestyle, and at the same time am making it possible for those living with higher carbon footprints to offset their emissions by donating to me. The funds are used entirely to support the blog and lifestyle. Every little bit helps. I am doing what I can today, not waiting for government action to price carbon – and am heartened by the response. You can help me help these little white bears today by supporting me. I can really use the help, and if you have a few bucks, it would help immensely. Low carbon living is possible. We just have to have the know-how, and the fortitude to put up with a little less comfort.


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