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

jessew@yukon-news.com