SI Vault
A Search for Some Bear Facts
Virginia Kraft
August 05, 1968
When alarmists charged that the polar bear was being hunted to extinction, the outcry sent scientists like Lee Miller and Jack Lentfer (below) off across the ice on a rewarding research trail
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August 05, 1968

A Search For Some Bear Facts

When alarmists charged that the polar bear was being hunted to extinction, the outcry sent scientists like Lee Miller and Jack Lentfer (below) off across the ice on a rewarding research trail

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Ever since man first probed the frozen vastness at the top of the world, he has both feared and been fascinated by the big white bear that lives there. Few animal habitats are more forbidding and few parts of the globe more hostile to life in any form. The winds wail year round across the wastes of the Arctic ice cap, and winter has no end. But the polar bear, acknowledging no enemy and accepting no equal, is master of its milieu. Or so it has always seemed. Of late, however, in this country and abroad, fear and fascination have been replaced by concern that all is not well with the polar bear.

Are the Days of the Arctic's King Running Out? headlined The New York Times in its magazine section on March 28, 1965. Yes, said the six columns that followed. Yes, said Lowell Thomas Jr., son of the explorer and unsuccessful congressional candidate from Alaska. Yes, said Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior (although he did not place the bear on Interior's list of endangered and extinct species). Yes, said that rare public speaker Charles Lindbergh in a speech in Juneau, Alaska: "The polar bear is in danger."

Not since the nation embraced Smokey as guardian of its forests has public sentiment rallied so solidly behind a bear. "The polar bear," wrote The New York Times , this time on its editorial page, "is a victim of a peculiar—and peculiarly repulsive—expression of man's egotism. Wealthy men have taken to hunting bears in Alaska from airplanes.... This kind of hunt is about as sporting as machine-gunning a cow." Man the Despoiler was at it again, and compounding his crime with the twin sins of money and mechanization.

Statesmen and politicians lost little time taking the same stand. Other newspapers and magazines took up the cry. Even the Congressional Record included in its pages several long and passionate pleas on behalf of the bear. Societies for the preservation of polar bears sprang up all over the country. And in September 1965 an international conference was called in Fairbanks, Alaska to consider the animal's fate.

To this meeting came biologists and ecologists from the five interpolar nations—Norway, Denmark ( Greenland), Canada, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. With them they brought reports, records, statistics and suggestions. And as the meeting progressed through a week of speeches and seminars, one fact began to emerge with increasing clarity: in spite of mounting concern throughout the world for the polar bear's survival, in spite of countless printed and spoken words forecasting its doom, not one person in that learned gathering could offer factual evidence that the polar bear was actually in danger. As discussions wore on it became clear that much of the publicity surrounding the polar bear's "plight" was founded on emotion rather than fact.

In emphasizing the need for more information about polar bears the conference at Fairbanks triggered a barrage of research that may eventually prove of major significance not only to the animal's survival but also to man's. Polar bear studies undertaken after the conference to answer questions involving game management and conservation have expanded in the three years since into so many other areas of inquiry that the bear is currently involved in virtually every phase of science.

In medicine, for example, the polar bear's corneas and the nictitating membranes of its eyes, which act as built-in sunglasses, may provide a clue to preventing snow blindness. The unexpectedly dark pigmentation of the bear's skin, the whiteness of its hair, its remarkable digestive system, which can convert large quantities of seal blubber into body heat, and its relatively short limbs all are being examined for secrets of the polar bear's ability to withstand incredible cold.

Another important experiment a polar bear tagging program—was begun as a result of the conference. Working out of Barrow in the spring of 1966, Scientists Vagn Flyger and Martin Schein, after dozens of unsuccessful attempts and considerable risk to their lives, managed to fire drug-filled immobilizing darts into seven polar bears. Although four of the bears died (the roar of public outrage that followed almost drowned out the fact that much valuable information about tagging had been obtained), the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, making use of a helicopter and more compatible drugs, undertook a tagging program of its own the following year.

Dr. Harry Messel, an Australian physicist and joint director of the Cornell-Sydney Astronomy Centre, found himself fascinated by the results of these early tagging efforts. "I thought," Messel recalls, "why not carry this tagging program one step farther and put radio collars on the bears? Tracking the movement of animals by means of electronically transmitted signals was not a new idea, but developing a radio-transmitting system that would work on a polar bear in the specialized severity of its Arctic environment was something else again.

"I realized," Messel explains, "that such a system, if valid for the polar bear, would be valid for other marine animals, and then, more important, for utilization in the study of the various parameters of the ocean. From there the applications to the whole field of oceanography are unlimited.

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