Dr George Durner

Formerly a polar bear expert with the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Anchorage, Alaska

George Durner has been a research zoologist with the US Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center polar bear research program.  He entered this position in 1991 and worked with a team of USGS scientists to identify and describe the mechanisms that drive the response of polar bears to a changing Arctic ecosystem. He has a BS in biology from East Stroudsburg University, an MS in wildlife biology from Frostburg State University, and a PhD in zoology and physiology from the University of Wyoming. His research centered on polar bear habitat relationships, particularly on how polar bears have and will respond to declines in sea ice. Hence, his research has been reliant on a 29-year history of polar bear location data gained through the Argos Data Collection and Location System. Much of his research results were used to inform the United States Secretary of the Interior’s decision in 2008 to list polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. George also has mapped polar bear maternal denning habitat across most of the North Slope of Alaska, has researched the demographic and temporal drivers of polar bear stress hormones.  George is currently a member of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, and previously served as a scientific advisor to the Joint Commissions of the Inuvialuit Game Council and the North Slope Borough for polar bear management, the US Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear Recovery team, and the Canadian Polar Bear Technical Committee. George has authored or co-authored more than 75 scientific papers on polar bears and other wildlife. George continues to collaborate with the Alaska Science Center and the US Fish and the US Fish and Wildlife Service on polar bear research .

Polar Bear Specialist Group

Interviews

2022

Research zoologist with the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, Dr. George Durner discusses his extensive involvement in studying polar bears and their sea ice habitat use. For decades he has researched various aspects of polar bear behavior, health, and reproduction, with a particular focus on their responses to changing sea ice conditions. Dr. Durner also led a project assessing stress hormones using polar bear fur samples collected over the years. He explains the challenges faced by the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation of polar bears due to sea ice loss during summer months, leading to a decline in their numbers. He noticed some improvement in survival rates after 2008, and the population has remained relatively stable since then even as the bears face significant changes and challenges in the Arctic environment.

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Dr. George Durner, a research zoologist at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, has extensively studied polar bears’ response to changing sea ice conditions. His team found that polar bears are fasting more due to reduced access to Ringed seals, their primary food source, leading to negative effects on their survival and reproduction. Additionally, cortisol levels in polar bear fur has indicated nutritional stress during periods of low survival. These findings underscore the challenges polar bears face in a changing Arctic environment.

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Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has undergone significant changes, especially in the region where polar bears are studied, the Southern Beaufort Sea. The loss of sea ice has increased in duration and extent, causing polar bears to be displaced from their optimal habitat on the continental shelf to deep waters of the Polar Basin during summer months. As a result of finding less to eat in these deeper waters, polar bears experience reduced body condition, muscle mass loss, decreased activity, and challenges in reproducing and raising cubs. Dr. George Durner, a research zoologist, highlights the complexity of these changes and acknowledges the substantial amount of research conducted by his team and collaborators to understand the impacts on polar bear populations.

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Dr. George Durner emphasizes the significance of long-term data collected through the polar bear research program, which owes much to the efforts of Dr. Steve Amstrup in establishing it back in the early ’80s. Extensive data and samples have proved invaluable in understanding the changing dynamics of polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea. With advancements in analytical techniques, both chemical and computational, and with the collaboration of brilliant minds, researchers have been able to gain insights into the effects of a warming climate on polar bears. The data derived from this research is crucial for regulatory agencies in developing conservation policies to protect polar bears in the face of ongoing climate changes.

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Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. George Durner and his team were able to continue their polar bear research with determination and adaptability. While most team members worked from their homes, the research progressed seamlessly through the use of modern technology, allowing remote discussions and data analysis. The pandemic did impact some aspects of fieldwork, particularly in the interactions with native cultures, but the team took necessary precautions to ensure everyone’s safety. In 2020, they had to cut short their field season, but subsequent years saw successful research operations in Utqiaġvik and Prudhoe Bay, demonstrating their dedication to understanding polar bears’ responses to a changing Arctic environment.

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Dr. George Durner expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to study polar bears and witness the Arctic’s majestic beauty over the past 30 years. He acknowledges the significant changes that have occurred in the region due to climate change and human impacts. Despite these challenges, he remains optimistic about the future, emphasizing the importance of understanding the relationships between polar bears and sea ice. He believes that by curbing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change, it is possible to create a sustainable Arctic that can support polar bears for generations to come.

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