Who didn’t love a good episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler wrestling alligators or anacondas? Believe it or not, that’s one of the reasons Dr. Steven Amstrup, this year’s Indianapolis Prize recipient, became interested in animals — that and the classic book, “Duff, the Story of a Bear.” You never know what will spark an interest in a child, but it was clear Amstrup was hooked — on bears.
His early interest continued into his graduate studies at the University of Idaho where he achieved his dream of studying brown bears. But as Amstrup says, “I viewed being able to study polar bears as the ripest plum in the wildlife science profession.” In 1979, he got his chance and began his polar bear research with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. And as they say, the rest is history. He is now the chief scientist with Polar Bears International.
His work was difficult, if not impossible at times, given the harsh conditions of the Arctic. But even with the challenges he faced, he pushed the envelope when it came to tracking these incredible animals.
Ian Stirling, a scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service says, “No researcher contributed more to the successful development of satellite radio collaring technology than Steven Amstrup.” It was this research that helped him understand the polar bears dependence on sea ice for hunting and denning.
But in the 1990s, Amstrup started noticing a disturbing trend — the loss of sea ice at an alarming rate due to climate change. The polar bears’ habitat was disappearing before his eyes. And the trend was worsening. In 2007, Amstrup led a team of scientists that provided the data that convinced the U.S. Government to list the polar bear under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Amstrup’s team projected that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears would disappear by mid-century without a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
His message is clear, though. We still have time to make a change. “We already know what we need to know to save polar bears. Now we just need to educate people,” asserts Amstrup. This is what prompted him to leave his ground-breaking research career to devote his life to educating people about the plight of the polar bear and the changes they can make in their daily lives to help protect them. Amstrup says, “That’s what I’m going to focus the rest of my life on.”
Photos courtesy of Polar Bears International.