Saving Mother Earth

Polar Bear @Denver Zoo 2009-02-14 LAH 351r (2)Save the monarchs. Save the rhinos. Save the polar bears. When I was growing up, it was save the whales. If you are on any conservation mailing lists, you know that there are plenty of beloved creatures in danger of extinction. Of course, these organizations all remind us that the way to save these poor, benighted creatures is to send money, lots of money.

This isn’t to say that these species aren’t in danger. And it isn’t that I don’t care about monarch butterflies, polar bears, or rhinos. I’ve been an environmentalist since my childhood, and I’m passionate about conservation.

This Sunday is Earth Day. If you’re going to send Mother Nature a gift, you should donate wisely. What should we consider before we click that Donate button?

One, don’t make this an emotional decision. Sadly, there are plenty of organisms in danger of extinction. We never hear about most of them. Perhaps they aren’t cute, or familiar, or they need a new publicist. As a result, no one is doing anything to save them. If you want to make a big impact, your donation might matter a great deal more if you target an overlooked species such as the whale shark, California condor, or pygmy three-toed sloth.

Two, research the facts. Unfortunately, organizations who survive largely on donations have a good reason to interpret data in the most alarming way possible. They might even exaggerate a bit.

Take polar bears, for example. We’ve all seen photos of starving polar bears staring forlornly out to sea, unable to reach their hunting grounds. We read assertive statements such as:

  • Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100. Two-thirds could be gone by 2050.1
  • If greenhouse gas-fueled climate change keeps melting their sea-ice habitat, an Arctic apocalypse will wipe them out in a century—and they’ll disappear from the United States by 2050.2

You’d think the species is on the brink of collapse. But it’s much more complicated than that. We aren’t as certain as these statements imply.

It turns out that polar bears are very difficult to count. They’re hard to spot by air, and collaring or tagging a 500-990 pound carnivore isn’t for the faint-hearted. Besides, ecologists hesitate to use tranquilizing drugs to avoid stressing the bears.

Polar Bear_Denver Zoo_LAH_0663Scientists have divided the polar bears of the world into 19 populations ringing the arctic. Only the most accessible of these populations have been studied, primarily those in Canada (an estimated 60% to 80% of the world polar bear population). According to the World Wildlife Fund, three populations are indeed in decline, one is increasing, seven are stable, and we don’t have sufficient data for the rest to know how they’re doing.  (This doesn’t stop the WWF from describing those populations as vulnerable, rare, or threatened.) However these assessments are based on 2009 data. Things have changed.

The most famous polar bear hangout is along the shores of Baffin Bay, in Churchill, Manitoba. More recent studies show that:

In Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island, the polar bear population has grown from 900 animals in the late 1970s to around 2,100 today. In Foxe Basin—a portion of northern Hudson Bay—a population that was estimated to be 2,300 in the early 2000s now stands at 2,570. And in specific areas of western Hudson Bay, the most-studied, most-photographed group of bears on Earth seems to have been on a slow but steady increase since in the 1970s.

Last year, a study published in Ecology and Evolution concluded that there is no need for concern, and that Canadian populations are not in fact declining after all. (You won’t see that on the brochures and websites.)

To be fair, it’s not just about numbers. There is valid concern about the health of the individual bears and their ability to reproduce successfully. This has some scientists predicting a crisis in the near future.

You can see how the statistics leave a lot of room for interpretation. Naturally, organizations wanting to raise funds will stress the concern, not the population growth.

Finally, if you want to financially support a worthy-seeming cause, research the organization. Learn where your donation will be used. Some organizations spend most of their income on salaries and other overhead expenses. Others, such as the federal duck stamp program, use most of their income (95% in this case) for the stated purpose of habitat protection and conservation. Websites such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and GiveWell can help. Consider also a nonprofit’s financial performance, accountability, and transparency, as well as whether the organization effectively accomplishes its mission statement.

  1. Source: This widely-quoted number comes from a series of studies by the USGS, published a decade ago in 2007. The researchers estimated the effect of sea ice coverage on bear populations, and predicted future ice coverage using NOAA’s computerized climate model.
  2. Source: Center for Biological Diversity. So are we talking 2/3 of the polar bears—or all of them?


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