Polar bears eat garbage to deal with climate change effects

Polar bear with chips bag on face, animal news
Bears look for food at a garbage dump near a small community on the coast of Hudson Bay, Canada, in this screenshot from a video taken in 2021, credit: Polar Bears International via Reuters

Polar bears are looking for food in garbage dumps as their habitat disappears due to climate change, scientists said.

Canadian and American scientists said on Wednesday that polar bears look for food in trash near communities where humans live. This causes human-polar bear conflicts.

In a study published in the journal Oryx, researchers found that garbage is drawing polar bears toward human communities.

“Bears and garbage are a bad association,” co-author Andrew Derocher, a biologist at the University of Alberta, said. “We know that very well from a brown bear and black bear perspective, and now it’s an issue developing with polar bears.”

With the Arctic warming rapidly due to climate change, sea ice is melting earlier and freezing up later. This forces polar bears, who need sea ice to hunt seals, to look for food elsewhere.

“It’s surprising just how many places that never had polar bear problems are now having emerging issues,” Derocher said. 

The report said polar bears are looking for food around open dumps in the Arctic, Russia’s Belushya Guba, and near Kaktovik in Alaska. These are all areas where people live. Local officials may decide to kill bears out of concern for public safety. 

Eating plastic

Consuming garbage can also make polar bears sick. Plastic and other non-edible materials can cause fatal blockages.

“Bears don’t know all the negatives that come with plastic ingestion and the diseases and toxins they’re likely exposed to in a (landfill) setting,” co-author Geoff York, senior conservation director at advocacy group Polar Bears International, said.

Scientists said that since the human population in the Arctic is increasing, the situation is likely to get worse. By 2043, the human population in Nunavut in Canada is expected to grow by nearly 40%. Nunavut is also home to thousands of polar bears.

“We know from the brown and black bear world in Europe and North America that dumps are a huge problem for bears. Human food is a huge problem for bears,” York said, adding that they’re noticing “this slow and steady increase in negative human polar bear interactions.” 

The management of waste in remote communities remains a challenge. Often, the ground is frozen, making it difficult to bury garbage. It is also too expensive to move trash to another area where polar bears can’t reach it. Scientists said federal funding is necessary to fix the problem.

The authors said the dramatic scenes three years ago in the Russian village of Belushya, where more than 50 bears were drawn to an open dump, were an extreme example of what can happen when garbage sites are left unsecured.

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