Dr. Steve Amstrup

Steve Amstrup is chief scientist emeritus for Polar Bears International.

He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He earned a B.S. in Forestry from the University of Washington (1972), a M.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Idaho (1975), and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (1995). Prior to joining PBI, he led research on all aspects of polar bear ecology in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea between 1980 and 2010. He is a past chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and has been an active member of the group since 1980. He has authored or co-authored over 150 peer-reviewed articles on movements, distribution and population dynamics of large mammals, and is the senior editor of a recent text on population estimation methods. In 2007, he led a USGS research team in production of nine reports that became the basis for the 2008 decision by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to list polar bears as a threatened species because of the threats they face from global warming. More recently Dr. Amstrup led an effort showing polar bears are not inevitably doomed. In the December 2010 issue of Nature, he and his coauthors showed that preserving polar bears is all about controlling human-caused temperature rise. In 2012, Dr. Amstrup was selected as recipient of the Indianapolis Prize and a Bambi Award for his efforts in animal conservation. In July 2020, Dr. Amstrup and his coauthors published a study in Nature Climate Change, following up on his 2010 study, this time using new understandings of polar bear energetics with projected sea ice loss to forecast when and where polar bear reproductive ability and survival would decline across individual subpopulations. This marked the first time that scientists answered the critical question of when the persistence of polar bear populations across the Arctic will be threatened due to sea ice loss from global warming.

Interviews

2009

Dr. Amstrup shares his personal journey as a wildlife biologist specializing in bear research, including his involvement in the international efforts to conserve polar bears. He explains the importance of studying polar bears through techniques like capture and recapture, as well as aerial surveys, to gather essential data for population management. Dr. Steve Amstrup also discusses the impact of global warming on polar bears. As the world warms due to human influences, there is less sea ice available, which is crucial habitat for polar bears and their primary prey, such as ring seals and bearded seals. The decline in sea ice reduces the carrying capacity for polar bears. In the past, hunting was the main concern, but now the focus is on global warming and its effects on polar bear habitats.

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Polar Bear expert Dr. Steve Amstrup warns about the severe impact of global warming on polar bears. Due to melting sea ice, bears are forced to inhabit unproductive, deep waters, resulting in food scarcity. Or when the ice retreats far from land, bears remain on land, further depriving them of the natural food sources in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Amstrup emphasizes that the current rate of warming is unprecedented, posing a significant threat to polar bears. He urges individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to preserve polar bear habitats and ensure their survival. Managing climate change is crucial for the long-term preservation of these magnificent creatures.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup is one of the approximately 25-30 polar bear specialists worldwide who dedicate 100 percent of their efforts to studying these remarkable creatures. He has been a full-time polar bear biologist since 1980, focusing mainly on the southern Beaufort Sea population. This area was chosen due to logistical convenience and the presence of Canadian colleagues studying the same population. The shared jurisdiction between Alaska and Canada allowed for effective monitoring and collaboration. Dr. Amstrup emphasizes the importance of understanding specific populations in order to extrapolate knowledge to regions where data is limited. He values the insights of local native communities who live in polar bear habitats year-round and acknowledges their crucial role in polar bear management. Additionally, he highlights the significance of traditional lore and legends in shaping the relationship between native people and wildlife resources, particularly polar bears, in their respective areas.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup, a polar bear specialist, emphasizes that global warming is the single biggest threat to polar bears. The decline in their habitat is directly linked to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Dr. Amstrup describes the process of global warming and talks about the relationship between climate and weather. Despite some uncertainties, scientific consensus supports the understanding that a warmer world will lead to less sea ice, posing dire consequences for polar bears.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup highlights the importance of applied research in polar bear management. Initially basic research can later become crucial in understanding and conserving polar bear populations. Collaboration and sharing of information among nations are essential, particularly for shared populations. By exchanging research findings and resources, scientists avoid duplicating efforts and gain a comprehensive understanding of polar bear behavior and habitat. Focusing on specific populations, such as the southern Beaufort Sea and Western Hudson Bay, allows for in-depth knowledge that can be shared across jurisdictions, promoting effective conservation measures throughout.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup explains the diverse types of radio tags used in polar bear research, tailored to specific study objectives. Researchers employ various collar designs depending on the desired data frequency and duration. Detailed movement patterns and foraging behaviors require high-frequency transmissions, while long-term habitat usage analysis may rely on infrequent but long-lasting transmissions. Trade-offs exist, as more information depletes battery life more quickly. However, across the global polar bear range, similar radio tagging methods are employed to collect data. Fieldwork spans a few months, followed by extensive data analysis and report writing. Initial objectives guide data collection, but unexpected insights often arise during subsequent analysis. The advent of advanced GPS radio collars provides a wealth of information, including location, activity, water presence, temperature, and more. These technological advancements require robust data storage and management systems, facilitated by advancements in computer technology.

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2022

Steve Amstrup highlights the importance of sea ice for polar bears’ survival and explains that despite increasing primary productivity in some areas of the Arctic Ocean, it doesn’t necessarily benefit polar bears. While the productivity increase might be suitable for other species, polar bears primarily rely on catching seals from the surface of the ice. Seals, in turn, depend on the productivity that starts on the underside of the sea ice. If the sea ice diminishes or disappears, polar bears lose their essential hunting platform, and seals lose the nourishment they need. Steve refutes the idea that polar bears could simply adapt to land-based hunting, citing evidence from the past when polar bears disappeared from regions where the sea ice retreated. He emphasizes that the Arctic’s unique ecosystem supports large polar bear populations, while adjacent terrestrial environments, home to grizzly bears, can only sustain small numbers of smaller bears. Steve concludes that maintaining healthy populations of the world’s largest bears requires preserving the sea ice and the nutritious food source it provides for them.

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Steve Amstrup, Chief Scientist for Polar Bears International, works to raise awareness about the impact of global warming on polar bears and their Arctic habitat. He believes polar bears’ iconic status draws public attention to climate change. While more people are concerned about global warming, translating it into action and policy changes remains a challenge. Steve connects the polar bear’s plight to the changing climate worldwide, emphasizing the far-reaching consequences of climate change. He hopes to inspire action by keeping climate change in the public eye. Steve envisions a future where the world embraces cleaner energy options to mitigate climate change and reduce conflicts over fossil fuels. Ultimately, he remains hopeful for a sustainable and climate-resilient future.

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Steve Amstrup reflects on his thrilling years conducting polar bear research, capturing (darting and collecting data and samples) and studying these majestic creatures in the Arctic. Despite missing the excitement of fieldwork with the US Geological Survey, he made a conscious decision to focus on polar bear conservation with Polar Bears International. Witnessing the profound changes in the bears’ habitat due to global warming, he emphasizes the importance of understanding and preserving these ecosystems. Steve believes their work at Polar Bears International contributes to the cause of polar bear conservation, aiming to safeguard these iconic creatures and their Arctic environment from the increasing human impacts.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup and his colleagues published a groundbreaking paper in 2020, shedding light on the future plight of polar bears in different regions. By analyzing the energetics of polar bears and their ability to fast during ice-free periods, they predicted when different sub-populations will face challenges due to climate change. The study, involving 13 of the world’s 19 sub-populations of bears, provided valuable insights into the impending risks polar bears are likely to encounter. For example, in Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea of Alaska, polar bears are already facing significant challenges. This information is crucial not only for scientific understanding but also for policymakers and conservation managers.

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Dr. Steve Amstrup, former Polar Bear Chief Scientist for the USGS (US Geological Survey), transitioned to working with Polar Bears International in 2010 to address the main threat to polar bears: global warming and habitat loss. As a small non-profit, the focus of PBI is on outreach and education to raise awareness about the challenges polar bears face due to climate change. Through research projects and supporting other scientists, they aim to disseminate current science and emphasize the importance of collective action to combat global warming. Their mission is not only about polar bear conservation but also about safeguarding the planet as a whole. Through media engagement and website stories, they strive to keep the plight of polar bears in the public eye, inspiring action to protect these iconic creatures and the environment.

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