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Polar bear experts swat Leef

Yukon MP Ryan Leef apparently thinks polar bears are doing just fine. The world's experts on the species disagree. In a letter to Watson Lake’s Heather Cobban in February, Leef claimed that the worldwide polar bear population has “quadrupled in the last 40 years.”

Yukon MP Ryan Leef apparently thinks polar bears are doing just fine. The world’s experts on the species disagree.

In a letter to Watson Lake’s Heather Cobban in February, Leef claimed that the worldwide polar bear population has “quadrupled in the last 40 years.” He also referenced a 2008 paper claiming that the majority of scientific studies on polar bears “should be considered unscientific and inconsequential to decision makers.”

The 2008 paper that Leef hung his letter on was written not by climate scientists or zoologists, but by a marketing expert, an economist and an astronomer. All three are climate change deniers.

“I was surprised by the apparent lack of information he had before writing to one of his constituents,” said Steven Amstrup, a globally respected expert on polar bears and the chief scientist at Polar Bears International.

“To cite a paper that’s been totally discredited seems irresponsible,” he said.

Cobban, a teacher at the Watson Lake high school, had written Leef urging the federal government do more to protect polar bears. In addition to insisting the bears are doing well, Leef also mentioned the government has reduced the number of animals hunted each year and in 2010 imposed a ban on the export of polar bear parts from animals killed on Baffin Island.

Amstrup said Leef’s response is similar to other attempts by Canadian government officials to play down concerns about climate change.

“It’s a concern in Canada and in the U.S. as well, that our public officials don’t seem to be taking climate change very seriously,” said Amstrup. “Some seem to have a mission of discrediting the reality of climate change. There’s a sense that if they can somehow make it seem that polar bears will be OK, they have also discredited the larger arguments.”

That’s exactly what Cobban thought when she saw her MP’s response.

“When it comes to polar bears, we have some of the most recognized polar bear scientists in the world,” Cobban said. “Our Canadian scientists were bypassed, Canadian research has been either bypassed or muzzled, and who does the government reach out to? A fringe group of known climate deniers,” she said.

There are an estimated 25,000 polar bears in the world today, but Amstrup said it ultimately doesn’t matter how many there are, or whether hunting is having much of an impact on them. The biggest concern is their shrinking habitat. Polar bears rely on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, and as the planet warms, sea ice will continue to melt.

Deprived of sea ice, polar bears begin to starve and end up roaming the shoreline and intruding into northern hamlets and villages in search of food.

Ian Stirling is another world leader in polar bear research. He, along with Amstrup and five other polar bear and climate experts, helped debunk the 2008 paper. “I thought that was the end of it,” Stirling said.

During his years studying polar bears for the Canadian Wildlife Service, requests from the public for information like this would periodically land on his desk, Stirling said. That practice, it seems, is no more.

“For this to suddenly turn up as a response from a Canadian parliamentarian when Environment Canada, just last year spent probably $1.5 million doing polar bear research ... How on earth a debunked, uninformed article by three climate change deniers with no knowledge about polar bears would be sent out to a constituent is just a bit of a puzzle,” said Stirling.

“I can only imagine that someone in the government has provided talking points,” said Amstrup.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that paper cited since we discredited it. We so resoundingly, point-by-point discredited every argument made in that paper,” Amstrup said.

Leef isn’t the first Conservative MP to openly question climate change and claim that polar bears have nothing to fear.

On April 14, the Vernon Morning Star published a letter from Okanagan-Shushwap MP Colin Mayes claiming that polar bear populations are at a 20-year high. He said sea ice in Antarctica is increasing.

But polar bears live at the other end of the planet, in the Arctic.

Mayes also said that climate change in the North is simply a cyclical pattern, and cited the experiences of his brother, who lives “close to the Arctic Circle” as proof.

Doug Clark has studied polar bears in Canada’s Arctic at Yukon College, examining the relationship between climate science and the public’s perception of the danger climate change poses.

“This ‘meme’ about polar bear populations doing well is pretty widespread, and it’s even repeated by people who frankly ought to know better,” Clark said.

In order to argue that polar bear populations have quadrupled, Leef must be relying on population estimates from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which have been deemed wholly inaccurate, Clark said. Scientists simply don’t know how many polar bears there were 40 years ago, so any assurance of their growth is pure speculation.

Part of the problem, he said, is that polar bears have become a universal symbol for the Arctic, used by both sides of the climate change battle to either prove sea ice is disappearing or that it isn’t.

“There are enough gaps in the data that you can cherry pick information to support any side. And that happens because polar bears have become a symbol for some much larger issues on a global scale,” Clark said.

Given the lack of data, it’s ridiculous to make any claim about whether polar bear populations are rising or falling, and certainly unreasonable to insist they have quadrupled, he said.

The solution, as Clark sees it, is to gather more data about polar bears. And that means engaging the northerners who live with them. After all, it’s the local hunters that have the long-term responsibility for carrying out whatever management plan the government puts in place.

“We need to fix the institutions that bring together the information. The controversies are so loud and shrill and play out on the global stage that local observations of what’s going on are being left out. That’s a grave oversight,” Clark said.

Heather Cobban could not be reached by press time, and Ryan Leef did not return a call for comment.

Contact Jesse Winter at