Charismatic ambassadors of the American West, greater sage-grouse remain birds on the brink as a debate rages across the region and in Congress: Will conservation planning be enough or should the speices receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In 1773, King George III of England appointed naval officer Constantine John Phipps to command an Arctic expedition to search for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, on the ice fields near Spitsbergen (now Svalbard), Norway, Phipps found polar bears. The explorer was the first to describe the bears as a distinct species, Ursus maritimus.
Were he to undertake the journey today, Phipps would spot polar bears not on sea ice but wandering along rocky shorelines, searching for frozen water.
For polar bears—marine mammals and apex predators of arctic realms in Norway, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska—everything begins and ends with ice, or more to the point, with the ice edge. For the bears, that edge is the thin line between life and death. If sea ice continues to melt at its current rate, scientists believe two-thirds of the world’s 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears could be gone by 2050.
Sea ice is vital to polar bears because the surface provides the platform on which bears can travel and from which they are able to hunt for their choice prey, ringed seals.
Found in arctic waters on ice floes and pack ice, ringed seals—also known as ice seals—scratch away at the ice with clawed flippers, maintaining open breathing holes and allowing them to live where other seals can’t.