U students raise awareness about polar bear habitat dangers

Alexi Besser-WiekâÄôs message is simple: polar bears are in danger and people should do something about it. As a result, Besser-Wiek, a University of Minnesota environmental science, policy and management senior, is working with a group of students, which includes Mary Vickerman , Tho Nguyen and Abby Hurmus , to partner with the Alaska Wilderness League through the UniversityâÄôs service learning program to help raise awareness about the plight of the polar bears. According to Polar Bear International , a nonprofit group supporting polar bear conservation, thereâÄôs been a 620,000 square mile decrease in sea ice, a critical polar bear habitat, over the last 25 years. Besser-Wiek and the other University students are working to promote âÄúThe Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World,âÄù an event being held Thursday at the Bell Museum. It will feature prominent polar bear photographer Steve Kazlowski. Kazlowski has spent ten years photographing polar bears in arctic Alaska. Over that time, he said the effects of global warming have become obvious. âÄúThereâÄôs a lot less ice in the summer time, a lot more erosion and even in the winter there are huge open areas of water,âÄù Kazlowski said. âÄúEach season there is something new occurring.âÄù Kazlowski described the situation of the polar bears as âÄúdelicate,âÄù saying that the summertime environment of polar bears is melting under their feet. Polar bears are being forced to retreat farther out onto the ice shelf, making it hard for them to get food, he said. Lois Norrgard , the Midwest representative for the Alaska Wilderness League who is helping mentor the group of students, said the ice shelf that polar bears live on is melting and that action must be taken immediately to protect their remaining habitats. She referred to the Alaskan wilderness as âÄúeverybodyâÄôs land,âÄù and said itâÄôs important for everyone to work to protect it. Besser-Wiek said he got involved with the project because he felt like it was a pressing issue that students could easily recognize. âÄúA lot of the time, environmental issues arenâÄôt straight forward,âÄù he said, âÄúbut this is a pretty clear cut representation of the conservation movement.âÄù In addition to helping raise awareness on campus, the group plans on writing to Minnesota Congress people in support of legislation that would protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, specifically the Coastal Plain region inside the refuge, from oil drilling. Polar Bear International warns that increased drilling in ANWR could significantly affect on-shore polar bear habitats in the region. The Coastal Plain region is the most important on-shore habitat for polar bears in the United States, Norrgard said. Introducing Kazlowski at the event will be Sarah Davy , a junior at Como Park Senior High School who spent a week in October in arctic Canada studying polar bears. Davy said the problems presented by global warming will be a major issue that youth will have to deal with as they grow older. Davy compared polar bears to âÄúthe canary in the coal mine,âÄù saying that what is happening to polar bears now will soon have an effect on the rest of the world. âÄúTheyâÄôre the poster child for global warming,âÄù she said.