Leef back pedals on polar bear letter

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is pulling back from some comments he made in a letter to a constituent about polar bears.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is pulling back from some comments he made in a letter to a constituent about polar bears.

Leef landed at the centre of a controversy last week over the letter and the spotty science it contained when Postmedia science reporter Margaret Munro published a scathing article that questioned why a Canadian parliamentarian was pushing “bogus” science.

In the letter, which Leef said he researched and wrote himself, he said polar bear populations have quadrupled in the last 40 years, and referenced a now-discredited paper by three American scientists, who are known climate change deniers, claiming that concern over polar bear populations was inflated and unjustified.

Rather than lean on the American paper, Leef now says he could have referenced Canadian scientists with the same perspective, but probably shouldn’t have referenced any scientists or studies at all.

“If I reflect back on it, to be quite frank I probably would just not include any (studies or scientists) and stick with my main message, which is that the estimates we currently have are widely accepted, that there are between 20,000 to 25,000 bears, that the government of Canada, in partnership with the provinces and territories, continues to assess that. If I’d kept it about that succinct, we wouldn’t be into a big debate and discussion where scientists are chewing each other’s research apart or where an over-zealous journalist from Vancouver is trying to sling mud at me,” said Leef.

Leef said that when he chose the 2008 American paper, he didn’t know it had been roundly debunked by a group of seven Canadian polar bear experts. But he insisted that it is still one acceptable perspective, and that there is no consensus on historic polar bear numbers.

While Leef said he believes polar bear populations are stable at around 25,000 bears worldwide, he has no doubt that they will be impacted by climate change, and that further study of their numbers is needed.

The larger problem, he said, is that polar bears have become used as a poster species by both environmentalists and climate change deniers to bolster their respective causes.

“Unfortunately I think what’s happened is that some people have tied the debate so closely to climate change, they’ve made the polar bear the mascot of climate change, and any indication of rising polar bear populations or resilience of a polar bear populations threatens the idea that climate change is a reality. That’s unfortunate because we know that climate change is real. We know there are a number of signs and symbols that could be used, that are reflective of climate change, particularly as northerners,” Leef said.

Concern over polar bear populations is often tied to the debate about climate change because polar bears rely on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals. As the planet warms and sea ice recedes, it becomes harder for polar bears to feed themselves. Starving, they often come farther in shore and into human communities in search of food.

The 2008 paper that Leef cited was roundly discredited by two of Canada’s leading polar bear experts, Steve Amstrup and Ian Stirling, along with a team of five other researchers. Amstrup called the comments in Leef’s letter “irresponsible” and said he was surprised to see the 2008 study referenced as acceptable scientific information by anyone.

Contact Jesse Winter at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited internet options beginning Dec. 1. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet for some available Dec. 1

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited… Continue reading

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Most Read