Human food waste is a growing threat to already struggling polar bear populations – but there are solutions to the problem, a new research paper suggests.
The reportpublished Wednesday in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, examines six case studies that illustrate how negative foraging-related interactions between humans and polar bears can become chronic or unpredictable.
Among them is the community of Churchill in northern Manitoba, which closed its dump, secured the waste in a bear-proof facility and focused on educating the public on the issue.
Report co-author Geoff York said the danger to polar bears is twofold.
One is the increased conflict between polar bears and humans, he said, resulting in bear deaths. The second danger is that bears eat unhealthy foods, said York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International.
“For already stressed populations, this just adds an additional stressor to the load. Especially on the side of disease, toxic substances and plastics.”
Churchill is an example that presents possible solutions – but “the problem with all of this is that it is all very expensive,” York said.
The report suggests the problem is also exacerbated by climate change, as the loss of sea ice forces polar bears to land more often.
This loss of ice has stressed polar bears for years, some researchers raising concerns about possible extinction.
“At some point they’re going to be hungry and they’re going to look for food. And if they can smell something that smells like food to them, they don’t know it might just have other things that are negative for them. them their health,” York said.
Growing human populations and increased human visitation also increase the likelihood of human-bear conflict, the report says.
But giving northern communities the resources, education and tools they need to deal with polar bear issues can help solve the problem, York said.
“History repeats itself”: expert
Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo, said the report is a valuable step in defining the problem and offering potential solutions.
“I think a lot of times issues or issues will…maybe noticed locally, but maybe not noticed [on] on a larger scale until we get a document or a report like this that pulls it all together and really focuses people on what the solutions might be,” he said.
Petersen, who worked in Churchill, said solutions found there can be transferred to other regions dealing with the same problem.
The report features case studies of communities in Nunavut, Russia and Alaska, as well as coastal First Nations in Ontario. Some of these areas have seen the negative effects of the presence of bears conditioned to eat garbage, according to the report.
“One of the things we see overall is kind of a repeating story to some degree,” Petersen said.
“I think one of the big lessons is that…if you want to look to the successes of Churchill in Canada or elsewhere, there needs to be funding and support for those northern communities.”
The report also recommends that communities improve documentation and monitoring of instances of foraging polar bears, which Petersen says is crucial to solving the problem.
“Collecting this information will give the elements that will allow each community to adapt a management plan for their community,” he said.
In Churchill, Petersen said that after the landfill was removed and the food source disappeared, most of the remaining problem bears were young adults and family groups.
Having this information helped pave the way for a proactive plan to reduce risk to people after the landfill is closed, he said.
“Knowing this cycle for each community is going to be important in developing the way forward,” he said.
The report also recommends that communities test methods to keep food from polar bears, evaluate the effectiveness of different deterrence and relocation efforts, and develop ways to predict when polar bears might seek out human food waste. .