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Mysterious Arctic Illness May Have Spread to Polar Bears

Andrew Wetzler

Posted April 7, 2012

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polar bear on ice (NASA) 

A mysterious disease that swept through populations of seals in the Canadian, Russian and American Arctic last year and was associated with high levels of mortality, may have spread to one of the seals’ principal predators.  Scientists with the United States Geological Survey reported observing polar bears with hair loss and skin lesions in the Beaufort Sea, near Barrow.  These symptoms are similar to those that affected ice seal populations in the same area last summer, although whether they are suffering from the same illness remains unknown. 

It should also be noted that Pacific walruses with similar symptoms were also observed near Barrow last year and they appeared otherwise healthy.  So far, so do the polar bears.

Nonetheless, the appearance of this disease among polar bears, a threatened species, is disturbing.  At the very least, it should serve as a caution flag to scientists and government officials.  With polar bears already vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and now showing signs of a new emergent illness, this is not the time to be playing Russian roulette with the Beaufort Sea population either by rushing ahead with offshore oil exploration and drilling or by continuing Canada’s commercial trade in polar bear skins.

You can tell the Obama Administration not to proceed with exploratory Arctic drilling here.

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RyanApr 7 2012 11:56 PM

Deer hunting makes the state a ton of money. And wolves don't just kill the sick and injured deer like some of u might believe. I am not saying we should wipe them out but they need to be controlled. The reality is wolves have killed farmers calves. And guess what they get reimbursed by the state for there losses. And not only that but do u really want to piss of the already pissed off deer hunters in this state? Everyone wants an opportunity to harvest a deer and it's time to knock a few wolves off. And who knows maybe the moose population will rebound something is killing all the calves. Ryan

P.J.Apr 8 2012 01:35 PM

"it's time to knock a few wolves off"? Wow! Get an education please. Better yet, find your soul.

B. T.Apr 8 2012 04:57 PM

There is no evidence supporting drilling is related to this illness. Instead let's focus our efforts on a
Proven killer of polar bears: fur harvesters. More lives will be saved by stopping fur hunters than chasing after a possibly unrelated and contentious oil drilling practice. More people will get behind a movement to stop polar bear slaughter than stopping drilling.

Andrew WetzlerApr 8 2012 05:07 PM

Thanks for your comment B.T.

I totally agree with you about the fur trade. As for drilling, of course I don't believe that drilling is the cause of the illness. But I do believe that the risk to this population from a catestrophic oil spill (like we saw in the Gulf last year) is a serious one, particularly as it is already threatened with extinction and there's now new evidence of an emerging illness whose effects are unknown.

anonymousApr 10 2012 09:44 AM

What should be noted is the near extinction of the sea organisms that the seal depended on as a result of changes to the seasons which affect the salinity and breeding cycles of the small organisms that even the greatest predator relies on. It is not only man that is causing this, the earth's natural tendency to go through small ice ages and revert back to it's prehistoric self also affects large populations of life on earth. Don't forget the extinction of the wooly mamoth for instance related to a change in climate.

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