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Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Peter Kent refuses to correct Conservative MP's crackpot views on polar bears

| May 1, 2013
Peter Kent refuses to correct Conservative MP's crackpot views on polar bears

The story about the Yukon Conservative MP Ryan Leef's letter to a constituent saying that the polar bears of Canada are doing just fine thank you very much is now widely known.

Leef quoted so-called "research" by a marketing expert, an astronomer and an economist -- none of them Canadian, and climate change deniers all -- that showed there is nothing in the status of polar bears today to worry "decision-makers."

In addition, the Yukon MP claimed, without citing any scientific evidence, that the polar bear population has quadrupled over forty years.

This should not be a one-day-wonder story. Its significance goes beyond one backbench MP's off-the-wall and bizarre views.

The letter, and the government's response to it, constitutes one more -- and one rather dramatic -- indication of the Harper government's near hostility to science, especially when that science contradicts its ideology.

Climate change the culprit

You don't have to search far and wide to learn about Government of Canada scientists' work on the polar bear. You just have to go to the Environment Canada web site.

"The polar bear was listed as a species of Special Concern in November 2011 under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which is strong domestic legislation to conserve and protect wildlife in Canada," Environment Canada says on its site, "A federal Management Plan is now under development in accordance with the Special Concern listing."

When it comes to the causes for that "Special Concern," Environment Canada says:

"Climate change continues to have a negative impact on polar bears in some portions of their range and remains the most important threat to their long-term range-wide security. Conservation plans for polar bears must consider [the] ultimate effects of the global warming challenge."

The publicly available summary notes on a 2009 Environment Canada Roundtable on the polar bear give further details.

The notes mention that industrial activity in the Arctic has had a detrimental impact on the bears, and they go into some detail on the greatest threat to the bears: the disappearance of sea ice.

It is worth quoting this summary at length, because it shows the diligent efforts to protect this "iconic species" the government's own scientists and officials have been attempting to make, despite the seeming indifference of their Conservative political masters.

"Sea ice is the primary habitat of polar bears who use it to move, hunt, mate and sometimes den," the notes tell us, "Sea ice can be classified as annual ice (which melts and forms again every year) and multi-year ice (which does not melt completely each year). Since annual ice is key habitat for ringed seals, the main prey item for polar bears, it is also critically important habitat for polar bears."

The notes then go on to explain the crucial importance to polar bears of the kind of ice that does not melt and re-form each year, but endures year after year. 

"In places like the Beaufort Sea," they say, "Multi-year ice is also important, as it provides both maternity denning habitat for some bears and summer refugia to bears as the sea ice retreats northwards."

The notes conclude that both kinds of ice "are critical for polar bears."

"Research gaps remain," Environment Canada scientist readily admit, "But it is clear that multi-year ice is shrinking and thinning in the Arctic. Although annual ice will continue to form, a longer ice-free season is detrimental to polar bears."

Kent barely mentions Environment Canada scientist's work

On Tuesday, NDP MPs Dennis Bevington and Anne Minh-Thu Quach asked Environment Minister Peter Kent about Ryan Leef's science-denying letter.

Kent responded by, very briefly, touting Canada's record in protecting polar bears -- fair enough -- but he pointedly did not take the opportunity to correct the false statements by his colleague from the Yukon.

Instead, after giving short shrift to the actual question at hand -- the survival prospects of an animal widely considered a symbol of Canada itself -- Kent reverted to customary Conservative attack dog rhetoric.

"Let us talk about what the NDP denies," the Minister of the Environment said, "They deny the sustainable seal hunt ... They deny development in the north. They deny resource development in the north. They wander abroad to lobby against Canadian jobs, Canadian interests and responsible resource development."

So much for the polar bear, and Canadian efforts to protect it.

Ryan Leef's letter is not exactly government policy. But the fact that no one from the Government will even mildly disassociate themselves from the absurdities Leef wrote speaks volumes.

Reports on the actual science concerning polar bears are still available on the Environment Canada web site -- but you may want to check them quickly.

Facts that contradict Conservative ideology have a way of disappearing these days. 



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