Our garbage is threatening polar bears — but there are solutions, new report says

A new research paper shows that human food waste poses a growing threat to a struggling polar bear population – but there is a solution to the problem.

The reportpublished Wednesday in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, looks at six case studies illustrating how negative food-related interactions between humans and polar bears can become chronic or not predictable.

Among them is the community of Churchill north of Manitoba, which has closed its landfill, secured its waste in a bear-proof facility and focused on educating the community about the issue.

Report co-author Geoff York says the danger to polar bears is twofold.

One is increased conflict between polar bears and humans, he said, leading to the bears being killed. The second danger is that bears are eating unhealthy food, said York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International.

“For populations that are already stressed, this just adds up to one more stressor. Especially in terms of disease, toxins and plastics.”

Churchill is an example that presents possible solutions – but “the problem with all of that is that it’s all very expensive,” says York.

The report suggests the problem is also being exacerbated by climate change, as the loss of sea ice forces polar bears to come inland more often.

That loss of ice has been stressing polar bears for years, with some researchers raised concerns about the possibility of extinction.

“At some point, they’ll get hungry and they’ll go in search of food. And if they can smell something that smells like food to them, they don’t know that it could have other negative things. for their health,” York said.

Population growth and visitor numbers also increase the likelihood of human-bear conflict, the report said.

However, providing northern communities with the resources, education and tools they need to deal with polar bear problems 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 was an important step towards identifying the problem and devising potential solutions.

“I think the problems that are common… can be noticed locally, but can go unnoticed [on] on a larger scale until we get an article or report like this, pull it all together and really focus people on what the solutions could be,” he said.

Petersen, who has worked at Churchill, says the solutions seen there can be transferred to other regions that address the same problem.

The report outlines case studies on communities in Nunavut, Russia and Alaska, as well as Coastal First Nations in Ontario. Some of those areas have seen the negative effects of allowing bears around to eat trash, the report said.

“One of the things that we’re seeing overall is history repeating itself to a certain extent,” Petersen said.

“I think one of the big lessons is … if you want to look at Churchill’s successes in Canada or elsewhere, there needs to be some funding and some support for those northern communities. .”

The report also recommends that the community improve the recording and monitoring of polar bear foraging cases, which Petersen says is crucial to addressing the problem.

“Gathering that information will provide the pieces that allow each community to tailor a management plan for their community,” he said.

In Churchill, Petersen said that after the landfill was removed and the food source was no longer available, most of the bears with the problem that remained were adults and family groups.

Having that information helped pave the way for a proactive plan to reduce risks to residents after the landfill is closed, he said.

“Knowing that cycle for each community is important for developing the way forward,” he said.

The report also recommends that the community experiment with methods of keeping polar bears food, evaluate the effectiveness of various containment and displacement efforts, and develop ways of predicting when polar bears will be present. can forage food leftovers from humans.

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