4 issues keeping polar bears in the spotlight

Polar bears regularly draw attention for everything from their fate as a species in the face of climate change to their ability to draw a crowd at a zoo, but recently they've also grabbed headlines for close encounters with people and a new population study.

They are majestic mammals that draw attention for everything from their fate as a species in the face of climate change to their ability to draw a crowd at a zoo.

Polar bears have been making headlines for several reasons lately, including for disputes over just how threatened they are as a species. In Canada, home to 60 per cent of the world's 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, they are considered a species of special concern whereas the U.S. has branded them a threatened species, which is one step closer to the most serious classification of endangered.

Here's a look at four issues that have arisen recently concerning the animal.

Where are humans encountering polar bears more frequently?


Polar bears aren't rare there, but they are tracking seals on pack ice that is particularly close to the northeastern Newfoundland shore this spring.

The unusual situation has prompted at least eight warnings about polar bears in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Officials have shot and killed two bears. One was shot after it stirred up trouble going from house to house in Goose Cove. Before that scavenging, the animal had wandered onto a farm where it killed a sheep, a lamb and two ducks.

Another bear was shot by the RCMP after it tried to make its way into a lighthouse on Puffin Island and then got to shore and into Greenspond.

"The bear was very close — close enough that we could hear it, growling or making the noises of a bear," said RCMP Cpl. Dale Lewis, who shot the bear after determining public safety was at risk.

"I could see that the bear was coming into the community. There was a lot of people around, standing around the shoreline."

Where are polar bears losing their fur?


Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey are perplexed. They've been checking bears in the southern Beaufort Sea region and found alopecia and skin lesions on nine out of 33 animals inspected in the past couple of weeks.

But they don't know what's causing the hair loss, which is similar to skin conditions observed on bears in 1998-99.

"We took biopsies in '99 and couldn't establish a causative agent for the hair loss then," says Tony DeGange, chief of the biology office at the USGS Science Center in Anchorage.

The polar bears' mysterious condition comes after scientists noticed an unusual number of deaths among ringed seals found last summer on beaches on Alaska's Arctic coast. Those seals also had hair loss and skin sores, and similar traits were later seen in seals in Canada and Russia.

"Now, we have this unexplained mortality event going on with seals," said DeGange. "And they haven't been successful in figuring out what caused the seal deaths. Is it just a matter of coincidence or is it related? We don't know."

How is the polar bear population in western Hudson Bay doing?

It's hard to say for sure.

The Nunavut government released results last week from a recent aerial survey showing that the polar bear population had risen slightly, to about 1,000.

That number is up from a 2004 mark-recapture survey that found 935 bears, a total that itself was down from 1,194 in 1988.

Drikus Gissing, Nunavut's director of wildlife, says that while there are concerns about the effects of global warming, the survey results confirm that polar bears are not endangered.

Others aren't ready to make definitive statements based on the Nunavut government's numbers.

Peter Ewins, senior officer for species at World Wildlife Fund Canada, says polar bears in western Hudson Bay aren't out of danger.

In a blog posting on the WWFC website, he says the Nunavut study, along with a recent mark-recapture project by Environment Canada to estimate the size of the western Hudson Bay population, has not been reviewed by peers or been published yet and any meaningful comment is premature.

WWFC is eager to see the results of the Environment Canada analysis, which are expected to be published this summer. Publication of the government of Nunavut report is also expected in the summer.

"Once we have all the data, we can then use them to assess the health of the western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears," Ewins says.

That subpopulation is significant, he added, because it is one of two Canadian subpopulations (along with southern Hudson Bay) that are most affected by the current impacts of climate change: mainly, the melting of Arctic sea ice.

Where has a new celebrity polar bear been making headlines?

Anori relaxes in the outdoor enclosure with its mother, Vilma, at the zoo in Wuppertal, Germany, on March 29, 2012. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)


And the little bear in the big spotlight has a hefty celebrity pedigree.

Anori, a half-sister to Knut, the bear whose fame put him on the cover of Vanity Fair with Leonardo DeCaprio, went public at Wuppertal Zoo late last month.

Anori was born on Jan. 4, 2012, and went on display with mom, Vilma.

Another young polar bear that calls a zoo home but won't likely draw as much attention as Anori finally has a name.

Hudson, born on Oct. 11, 2011, is part of a four-bear population at the Toronto Zoo.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press