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Polar Bears: The very large canary in the coalmine for our generation

This month, we catch up with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) research scientist, Evan Richardson, to talk about his research on polar bears and the impacts of climate change on the iconic northern species.

For someone who has dedicated his career to the study of polar bears, Evan Richardson will tell you that it all started with a chance meeting. His undergrad in zoology led him to a summer job researching Arctic and red fox dens in Churchill, Manitoba. There, he met ECCC’s Ian Stirling (now retired) and Nick Lunn who runs the Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear research program today. This chance meeting eventually lead to a Master of Science with Stirling at the University of Alberta and a subsequent job offer with ECCC where he has remained for the last twenty years. Richardson’s research focuses on the ecology of polar bears and includes work on their diet, genetic structure, exposure to contaminants and disease and ultimately the impacts of human actions, including climate change and industrial development. His work contributes to the long-term conservation of this iconic Arctic species in a rapidly changing environment. “The carpet is being pulled out from underneath their feet,” says Richardson. “We can’t put a fence around sea ice and make a national park to give the animals space to roam while limiting people’s access.”

The contradictory polar bear: predatory and playful

It’s not surprising that polar bears captured Richardson’s interest. After all, they capture the hearts and minds of most Canadians with their power and hunting prowess. However that is not the only side of polar bears, as Richardson explains, “Polar bears also have a sense of play. You see that in photos and documentaries. Mothers playing with their cubs or two males wrestling on the tundra just being goofy. They are unique, dynamic, intelligent creatures.” Unlike the average Canadian, Richardson has had the opportunity to see polar bears up close and in person.

For the past 3 years, his focus has been community-based monitoring out of ECCC’s research station in Pond Inlet, Nunavut on Baffin Island. Evan and Jamie Enook, ECCC’s wildlife research technician in Pond Inlet, collaborate with the community to develop and support a range of research based at the ECCC research station in the community. Richardson and Enook go out on the sea ice with Inuit trackers to follow polar bear footprints in the snow in order to understand how polar bears use the complex sea ice habitat. “By working with people from communities in the north who have traditional knowledge about polar bears and the habitats they use, we learn about the behaviour and health of bears over the long term and how they are responding to changes in their environment,” says Richardson.

Conserving the sea ice ecosystem

“Climate change is impacting Arctic marine ecosystems. It’s impacting a wide variety of species and we are not just talking about potentially losing polar bears, but about losing a whole ecosystem that is dependent on sea ice,”explains Richardson. The polar bear is often referred to as the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change, and using the plight of the species can go a long way to making the public aware of changes in the North. That conversation extends beyond Canada’s borders to include all other countries where polar bears live. Richardson works with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group to share his, and Canada’s, research on polar bears with colleagues from Russia, the United States, Denmark and Norway. “Exchanging information with other polar nations is really important to get that broader perspective and understanding of how the species is responding to climate change in different ways in different areas.”

Challenge accepted

Being home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, Canada has an important role in the long-term conservation of the species. As a symbol of the true north and a culturally important species to Canadians and Indigenous peoples, Richardson feels a responsibility to help inform the conservation of the iconic bear that is fighting to survive in a changing Arctic. “I’d like to do everything I can to make sure that we conserve polar bears,” he says. “They are such an amazing animal it’s definitely worth all the effort to do everything we can to make sure they are here in the future.”



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