Ian Stirling on the threat to polar bears

They look awfully cute and cuddly from afar. The polar bear is a formidable predator, just ask anyone who's come face to face with one. But for all their strength, the icy environment on which they thrive is literally disappearing from under their feet. Canada is home to two-thirds of the world's polar bear population, spread through 13 bear colonies. It is also home to the man widely considered the foremost authority on polar bears, Ian Stirling.

Part Two of The Current

Ian Stirling on the threat to polar bears

The arctic trails really do have tales that would make your blood run cold. John Arnatsiaq is an Inuk hunter from Igloolik. Just before Christmas, he and four other men went to pick up some walrus meat they'd been aging. They discovered they had competition.

He was face to face with a polar bear. And his only weapon was a hammer. Another hunter had a rifle with the bullets in his pocket. So John Arnatsiaq knew he had no choice but to occupy the bear long enough for his friend to load his gun. He took the hammer and poked the bear in its mouth. He fought back long enough for his friend to shoot the bear dead. This wasn't John Arnatsiaq's first polar bear encounter but he hopes it will be his last.

Obviously, the people who live with the giant predators have a much different opinion of polar bears than those of us who admire the bears on the toonie. And Canadians do love those bears - so much so, that a report commissioned by the federal government this past fall suggests Canadians would be willing to pay up to 500 dollars annually per household to preserve the species.

Two thirds of the world's polar bears are in Canadian territory. This fall, Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton suggested the bears should replace the beaver as the national symbol. But while polar bears may feel the love right now, they're also feeling the heat. They are designated a species of special concern by Canada, and they face an uncertain future as their environment literally melts under their feet.

Ian Stirling is widely considered the world's foremost authority on polar bears. He's an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and has authored or co-authored about 150 scientific papers on polar bears. His latest book is Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species, and Ian Stirling was in Toronto.

We ended this segment with a story from Steve Amstrup. He is Chief Scientist for Polar Bears International. He's studied polar bears in Alaska for 30 years, and was in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey Polar Bear Research crew.

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