These Arctic Animals Are Most at Risk From Climate Change

Climate change is an undeniable reality. The rise of average temperature worldwide has had a devastating effect on the fragile balance of ecosystems. Nowhere is it more apparent than the Arctics, where shrinking polar ice caps and more extreme winter storms are shrinking habitats, depleting food sources and driving species to possible extinction. Here are 5 Arctic species that are most at risk from climate change.

Ringed Seals

The ringed seal is the most abundant seal found in the Arctic with populations spread out across the entire region. It is the primary prey for the polar bear and a fall in its population is expected to have the most significant effect on the polar bear’s survival. The ringed seals live in isolation, coming together on the sea ice for breeding and molting. The mother seal raises its pup in a lair dug in the snow. As the ice cap shrinks in size, pups are forced to the surface earlier, which makes them vulnerable to predators before they are ready to protect themselves.

Polar Bears

The emaciated polar bear, stranded on a block of ice is the poster child for the vulnerable Arctic fauna. Polar bears are at the top of the Arctic food chain and the species most at the threat of extinction if the polar ice cap were to totally disappear, as is projected by some models. Sea ice is critical for polar bears; a hunting ground where they catch seals and a corridor for moving from region to region. Shrinking sea ice makes it harder for mother bears to feed their young, resulting in a decrease in the survival rate of young polar bears and depleting populations.

Atlantic walrus

Atlantic walruses live in Arctic waters but during the summer months, the female rests on the edges of the sea ice with its young. It dives down in the shallow water and feeds off the bottom dwellers such as clams and worms. As the sea ice shrinks, it puts greater distance between the walruses’ mating and feeding grounds. With the shrinking of sea ice, more walruses are forced in smaller areas leading to crowding. Stampedes are common and it is the young ones that perish.

The melting of the Arctic ice has also opened up newer sea routes, causing ships and cruise liners to encroach further into the habitat of the walruses. This close contact with humans makes walruses anxious, causing them to seek refuge elsewhere and affecting their breeding.

Arctic Caribou

Caribou and reindeers are the largest terrestrial herbivores in the Arctic which have an effect on both vegetation and population of predators such as wolves.

As global warming causes the summer months to be extended, it also leads to increase in the breeding of flies and insects that torment the caribou as they feed. To rid themselves of the fleas, the caribou run. This takes away from their feeding time and also causes them to expend valuable energy. During the winter months, the caribou dig into the snow to feed on the lichens underneath. As extreme weather and snowstorms intensify, these lichens get buried under an impregnable layer of ice which makes it difficult for the caribou to get to the food underneath.

Ivory Gull

The Ivory gull breeds in the high arctic and is found throughout Greenland, upper North America, and Eurasia. It is the only species of gull that prefers to breed on the thickest sea ice rather than land. Glaciers and ice act as barriers that protect the Ivory gull’s breeding grounds from land-based predators. As the weather warms, the breeding grounds of the ivory gull become more accessible to land predators.

Hunting Polar Bear in the Arctic

Polar bears are a symbol of man’s destruction of the environment. The image of the polar bear on a broken piece of polar ice serves very well as a symbol of the fight against time to save the environment before it is too late. Polar bears have become an indicator of the health of the Arctic ecosystem, so it would come as a surprise that every year around 300 polar bears are legally killed or harvested’ trophy hunters from around the world go to Canada for hunting polar bear in the Arctic.

Polar bear hunting Across the world

The hunting of polar bears is banned or restricted in all the regions where it is found. Polar bear habitats are found in only five countries of the world – Canada, USA, Norway, Russia and Denmark (Greenland). Of these, only Norway has an instituted a complete ban on hunting polar bears.

In Russia and the USA, a strictly limited number of polar bears can be hunted by the indigenous people for subsistence. Greenland has recently allowed the hunting of polar bears by indigenous people which also allows some recreational hunting. Only Canada, which hosts about two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population allows subsistence hunting as well as commercial hunting of polar bears.

What is Subsistence Hunting?

The indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic have coexisted with polar bears for centuries. The Inuit have been hunting polar bears for years for its pelt, meat fat, and other body parts. Because of the lack of economic activity in the farthest regions of Canada, the Canadian government issues each village a quota of hunting licenses every season, which are allotted to indigenous hunters by a lottery. The hunters are paid a fixed amount for every killed polar bear as well as the proceeds from the pelt. The number of bears harvested every year is tightly controlled to ensure that the population levels stay stable. In this way, the Inuit are allowed to maintain their way of life while also being given an opportunity to sustain themselves.

Commercial Hunting

In addition to subsistence hunting, the Canadian government also allows commercial hunting of polar bears. Hunting licenses are issued on the condition that each hunting trip includes an Inuit guide. Trophy hunting companies that organize hunting tours for trophy hunters, most of who come from foreign countries such as the USA. The hunting season lasts from March to May and August to October. Hunting companies claim that the hunts are sex-selective so that no more than a third of harvested bears are female.

How is a hunt conducted?

A hunt is conducted with a dog team that chases the polar bear. Each hunting party includes an Inuit guide who helps track the bear. Once the bear is tired and distracted by the dogs, it is killed using a hunting rifle or a hunting bow. The bear can only be chased across the ground on a dog sled and chasing the bear aerially or through a motorized vehicle is not allowed. A typical hunting trip may last up to 10 days but ends as soon as the bear is killed.

Canada has a bear population of about 16,000. Of these, about 300 are hunted every year by subsistence hunters and trophy hunters. Critics of commercial hunting call the hunt cruel and claim commercial hunting will push an already threatened species towards extinction. Hunting advocates, on the other hand, say that responsible hunting has kept the polar bear population stable for many years and climate change is a much bigger threat to polar bears than commercial hunting.