Conserving Species with no Natural Habitat

Polar BearBy Andreas Kuersten

Arctic Summer College

The Arctic is most famous for its frigid expanses of snow and ice and the massive mammals that traverse these environments – e.g. polar bears, caribou, belugas, narwhals, etc. But climate change is fundamentally altering these intertwined facets of the High North. The Arctic is warming and steadily becoming less covered by snow and ice for shorter periods of the year. In turn, northern animals are being negatively impacted as the environments to which they are adapted recede. This situation brings an important question to bear: What is our responsibility to animals that are losing their habitats due to climate change?

To be sure, there are a number of processes that impact animal habitats and survival that offer varying possibilities for positive human interjection. Caribou have suffered immensely due to the development of large swathes of land that they need in order to maintain their herd sizes and carry on their long migrations. Various marine mammals have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Similarly, by the mid-20th century, hunting had decimated polar bear populations.

In these cases, it is distinctly within human power to halt and reverse offending actions to allow impacted species to recover. The clearest example of this is in the case of the polar bear. Strict limitations on hunting instituted in the second half of the 20th century allowed for substantial population recovery. In the same vein, increased protection of caribou habitat will likely have a profound impact on the animal’s ability to recover its previous numbers. Even in the case of impacts from other species – such as when it was believed that wolf predation was largely responsible for thinning caribou herds – humans are able to take action against the offending animal and protect the one in decline.

But things change when we talk about species losing their habitats due to climate change. Climate change is a global force largely outside of the control of humans, except perhaps for the overall degree to which it continues. Studies show that even if carbon emissions are completely halted climate change will continue to alter our world. It would likely be subdued somewhat due to the discontinuance of offending practices, but it would still significantly change the planet.

In the context of the Arctic, this means that the warming of the region is unlikely to be stopped through any action on our part. Current models project that the roof of the world will be ice-free by the 2050s. This means that the loss of Arctic habitats for northern animals is unstoppable.

This brings us back to the question posed at the beginning in terms of human responsibility for the preservation of Arctic animals that have lost their natural habitats. In this scenario, there is no longer a space where a given species can reside naturally. This situation perhaps has most salience when looking at the polar bear.

The polar bear is completely reliant on sea ice for its survival. It is impeccably adapted to traversing this environment and hunting seals from the ice. Along the west coast of Hudson Bay, the freezing over of the bay is steadily taking longer. This means that polar bears are having increasingly long waits on land until they can go out on the ice, hunt seals, and replenish their precious fat reserves. Unfortunately, these bears have almost no ability to forage for terrestrial food and are simply becoming weaker as they wait for the ice.

Additionally, Arctic warming is extending the habitat of the grizzly bear farther northward into polar bear ranges. Grizzly bears are excellent foragers and perfectly adapted to life in a warmer Arctic. Moreover, in recent years, grizzlies and polar bears have begun to interbreed. The result is a large bear that engages in seal hunting behavior but has relatively poor swimming and foraging skills. The hybrid is therefore ill equipped for survival as either a polar bear or a grizzly bear.

With the aforementioned information in mind, as the Arctic heats up we must seriously consider that the polar bear may no longer have a habitat in which it can live naturally. This raises the issue of preserving a creature that essentially has no natural place on the earth. What becomes the meaning of conservation? Does the animal simply become a trophy or a relic in zoos? Do we save it indefinitely in the small hope that we may one day reintroduce the species into the wild?

I don’t have an answer, but I thought the issue was novel, interesting, and one worth chewing on.

http://arcticsummercollege.org/conserving-species-no-natural-habitat

Picture: Ansgar Walk (photo taken by Ansgar Walk) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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