When climate change deniers see polar bears, they don't see an innocent victim of humans' wanton burning of fossil fuels. They see red.
Polar bears, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, are a symbol of the Arctic, and, since the Arctic sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate, they've also become a living symbol of efforts to combat human-made climate change.
While sea ice has melted precipitously in the last 40 years, massive declines in bear numbers haven't begun to manifest. But emaciated bears scrounging on the edges of human communities have become a common sight in some Northern regions. Climate change deniers, however, still see it as enough to cry foul on established climate science.
Susan Crockford, a Canadian zoologist and regular contributor to the conservative-run think tank The Heartland Institute, told Motherboard at a recent conference in Washington, DC that polar bears are actually "doing better" than they were 50 years ago.
As sea ice declines it ultimately means fewer polar bears.
The disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic that worries ecologists, she said, "really doesn't matter to [polar bears]. Because they've got a lot less [ice] than they've had since 1979, and a lot of bears are doing better," she said.
Zoologist Steven Amstrup, of conservation nonprofit Polar Bears International, told Motherboard over email that while that's a comforting view, it's incorrect. "The evidence is increasingly clear that polar bears are fundamentally dependent on sea ice to capture their prey," Amstrup said, "and that as sea ice declines it ultimately means fewer polar bears."
Amstrup previously worked for the US Geological Survey and has studied polar bears in Alaska for 30 years. He pointed out that the importance of seasonal sea ice varies based on location, and that for some bears, spring ice is most important, but that for others, contrary to what Crockford says, the summer ice is. He explained that for the spring-dependent bears, the sea ice is melting earlier and freezing later, which has created a shorter amount of time to forage for seals and a longer period of fasting.
"In both situations, however, declining sea ice is or will be (if it already isn't) a problem," he said.
For the bears that stay out on the ice over the summer, the ice is retreating out into deep waters with fewer seals, creating serious food shortages. "In both situations," said Amstrup, "melting sea ice means less foraging time and more fasting time."
Despite the pressures on polar bears, their numbers are still viable enough for Canada, which is home to two-thirds of the world's polar bear populations, to allow regulated hunting for their skins. These hunts are culturally, socially, and economically important to Inuit populations in the North, and hunters also maintain that the populations are stable.
Crockford, who at one point was funded by The Heartland Institute, suggested that maybe ecologists need the bear as a symbol of climate change in order to get funding for research. Amstrup, however, was not convinced.
"Well-funded denier organizations have long claimed that polar bear scientists are somehow enriching themselves with research grants," said Amstrup. " My wife, and the spouses of all of the other scientists I know can attest to the fact there is no enriching going on."
Editor's Note: Motherboard defines climate change deniers as those who don't accept the facts of human-caused global warming.