Caring For Our 1,600lb Friends

I have a great job, but I now know that author Richard Nelson's job is a bit cooler - literally and figuratively. Recently Nelson sat on the icy ground at the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast watching polar bears eat the remains of a whale.

Perhaps that sounds a bit gross to some, but the idea of watching such majestic creatures interact is fascinating to me. In any case, Nelson's reason for watching these polar bears dine was to narrate his observations for an Alaskan radio show called "Encounters." Don't worry, it's not full of gory descriptions - it's actually very informative. He shares polar bear facts and some of his experiences researching the world's largest land carnivore. Nelson is allowing us to post the audio on the Web site of Sierra magazine, and I encourage everyone to check it out. He also has an essay on polar bears in the latest issue of our magazine.Why the polar bear post today? It's a good time to raise awareness of the threats against polar bears: global warming and proposed oil drilling in their habitat. Their home ice caps are melting and the polar bear may be listed as an endangered species this January (though that listing may be postponed until June). According to Nelson, in the past 30 years, the thickness of the ice in the polar ice pack has decreased 40%. That's a shrinking world for an animal whose average home range is almost 100,000 square miles, he adds, which is about the size of Colorado.

To add insult to injury, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas may be opened up to oil drilling as soon as February. Female polar bears do not den where they think they might be disturbed, and you can bet the drilling would do just that. Experts say the seismic testing, boat traffic and chemicals associated with drilling create a hostile environment for marine mammals in the area.

This would just be one more way of humans affecting the polar bears' lives. According to Nelson, there are studies showing that polar bears are already carrying pollutants in their bodies.

It's another sad example of how humans affect the environment around them. If you're like me and fascinated by polar bears, and you're interested in learning more, you can take the polar bear quiz on our on Web site. The same page gives you a chance to take action in order to help protect these amazing animals (ice-sitting in northern Alaska not required).

Tags: Alaska | Arctic