Interview: Geoff York - Polar Bears International

In late April, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Geoff York (in front of our respective computer screens) to talk about the state of polar bear conservation and management, and his work as Senior Director of Conservation for Polar Bears International, a leading non-profit dedicated to the conservation of wild polar bears.

© Geoff York

You can also listen to our conversation by clicking on the audio player icon next to each interview question. 

Let’s start off with your roots. Where did you grow up? Where did you study?

00:00 / 00:48

I grew up far from the Arctic, from polar bears. And I'm originally from Indiana. And ironically, there are three people in the polar bear worlds from Indiana and it's just pure chance, I think. My parents are still scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened there but chance brought me to Alaska after my university years, I actually followed a young woman to Alaska who was from there, and I ended up staying for 21 years and quickly learned that having an English degree wasn't very useful for employment in Alaska at the time. So, I wound up going back to university for graduate school. 

Can you tell us about your first job?

00:00 / 01:37

My first job coming out of graduate school was kind of a broad marine mammal job where I was actually going out and either working with people shortly after they harvested marine mammals, or actually going out with them while they harvested marine mammals. The goal of the project was to obtain very clean tissue samples from presumed healthy animals around the state. It was something that came up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where there was a realization that we didn't have good baseline tissue samples for a host of things. So, we didn't know what normal was as far as levels of contaminants in the environment. And so, we were going around the entire coast of Alaska, slowly collecting these tissues in cooperation with Native Alaskans. Also looking at food safety issues in real time for them and in questions that they have, but also archiving samples. So, decades from then, people can go back in time literally and look at how things were there and just by chance that project fell under the management of the fellow in charge of polar bear research for the US [Dr. Steven C. Amstrup]. And in 1997, he asked me if I'd like to go catch bears, and I said, 'Sure,' and I've been working on polar bears ever since. So, right about 20 years there, and then about 27 or 28 years working in the Arctic, as well.

What were you working on in those decades in the Arctic?

00:00 / 01:13

So, ten of those are with government, working for the US Geological Survey in the US doing mostly classic wildlife biology, so a lot of hands-on animal capture working out on the sea ice. Usually twice a year, spring and fall seasons, as warming progressed or fall seasons went by the wayside. And I would say as of now in Alaska spring seasons are almost a thing of the past as well because the ice is too thin and too dangerous to work on in recent years. And so some big changes there for sure. After a decade with the government, I went on and worked for World Wildlife Fund's international Arctic program as their polar bear lead or Arctic species lead and that really broadened the scope of both my experience and just kind of my engagement looking at things at that international circumpolar scale, working with partners and all the polar bear range states. And that work is essentially what I continue to do today at Polar Bears International.

What does the work of a Director of Conservation at Polar Bears International entail?

00:00 / 00:56

I oversee all of our research, conservation work and policy work there. So, basically anything wonky or technical is pitched over, over to me. Well, some of it is actually doing research. We have some projects we do in-house, a lot of it is working with partners. So, both collaborating with researchers around the world, on their projects, trying to fundraise to help them achieve their goals in those places. And then, we do a lot of education outreach, making sure the material we're providing is accurate. Making sure the information we pass on to policymakers and the public is the most up to date that we have access to.

York working on a 4k camera in 30 below zero weather © Geoff York

Your colleague Dr. Amstrup has said, “the most important thing to do is to make sure that we communicate the science.” Polar Bears International has a multitude of education and outreach programs. Was that part of your strategy from the start or was it more of a learning experience?

00:00 / 01:47

I think twofold. One was, I mean, it's definitely a learning experience, which

is ongoing. And I think the current situation [meaning COVID-19] has forced a lot of us to relearn things and fine tune as we go. And I think culturally, a lot of what we're doing now meeting remotely, you know, leveraging some of these technologies for good will stick around. And we won't go back to jumping on planes and running around at the slightest, you know, thought of 'Oh, we should talk'. It's like, we can talk this way and get a lot of stuff done. So, part of it was that and then part of it was just looking at PBI; and our strengths is we're a very small organization. We started as an all-volunteer organization. Now we have a full-time staff of about 14 and we will probably never be much more than that 14 of 20 people there but kind of looking in the conservation world, what are the things we could bring to the table? And definitely one aspect of that was a very strong communications and visual side of things. Due to the nature of our work and our partners, we have access to tremendous photos, videos. We have really good partners who are great at making infographics and things like that. So that's kind of where we put a lot of our eggs. Not all of them, but we definitely have had natural investments on that side.

The short film ‘Bare Existence’ documenting the work of Polar Bears International in collaboration with Canada Goose is a great example of this kind of communication. How did the collaboration come about?

00:00 / 01:56

So, we've been very fortunate and this goes back, boy, over a decade, before Canada Goose was a global fashion brand and when they were still kind of a fairly quiet Canadian company making large Arctic parkas. They became interested in partnering with us. And that partnership very quickly formalized with their CEO, Dani Reiss, becoming a member of our board, and then fairly shortly after becoming chair of our board for a time, and he has really been one of the leaders within PBI to grow us into a more professional formal conservation organization. But at the same time, his company, and it was also through his interests and his leadership internally, adopted us as their charity organization. And so, when you go to Canada Goose, you see PBI, Polar Bears International, sort of embedded within the company all over. It's really cool for us and for them, and we do a lot of things back and forth. To help build that, there are contests within the company that anybody can apply to, and they usually evolve around ideas and sustainability within the company. And for folks that win that, then they get to come out in the wild in the north somewhere and see polar bears and work with PBI one on one. So, we've really been able to build that partnership over time.

You mentioned people coming out to the North and seeing it firsthand but Polar Bears International also encourages exchanges via video chats, like the one we’re having right now. In light of climate-related concerns and the current pandemic, where do you see these things evolving? Do you still see a need for first-hand experiences?

00:00 / 02:21

It'll be interesting to see where we end. I think when you look at tourism broadly, right now, they're going to be one of the most impacted sectors of our economies, globally, because people aren't traveling. But at the same time, it's making all of us rethink why and how we travel too. You think cruise ships and they've really been hit hard due to the nature of this particular pandemic. And cruise ships were booming in the Arctic and becoming a concern in places like Norway, and places like Wrangel Island, and in places like northern Canada that there was possibly too much of a good thing there. So, I think there'll be a natural opportunity both for communities to take a step back and reassess what works for them and there will likely be an economic sifting of companies through this that is involuntary. As you know, different companies will survive, and some probably will not survive. And the same is true for on-land tourism. I think you saw around the circum-Arctic [that] countries were pretty quick to protect northern communities, recognizing them as particularly vulnerable and particularly unable to cope with a significant outbreak. And so, places like Manitoba, where we do a lot of work, they've banned all travel to the north, unless you live there. And Nunavut has done the same, Alaska has done the same there, and so far, that's been quite effective. So, I think those claimed communities are going to be quite careful about reopening anytime soon, and like I said, I think everybody will also have an opportunity to think about what they want to see in the future what they want tourism to look like in the future.

With this look to the future, experts have criticized the lack of political action to ensure the conservation of polar bears since their listing on the US Endangered Species List in 2008, with Dr. Amstrup stating “We’re running out of time.” What is your perspective on this? Is there cause for hope?

00:00 / 02:38

I think there's still a cause for hope. And what Steve is getting at is, the listing was the first time (and it was a very US-centric process there) but it was the first time that climate was really brought into the management of a large species and a globally iconic species like the polar bear. And there was certainly a hope in the US. And this was at a time where we had (what we thought at the time was) a very conservative government. I think now we'd say, 'hm, maybe they weren't so conservative', but definitely an administration that did not want to list polar bears as threatened. But the science was such that they really had little choice but to do so. But there was a clear hope that with a listing, we would see action. And with polar bears, the threat is no longer hunting. The threat is no longer disturbance or habitat fragmentation, per se. The threat is climate change. And so, that action has to be taken at national and ideally international levels. You know, the structural change, the kinds of things we're seeing now, in this pandemic that we said were impossible to do, but we're doing it. We needed to sit and think about with climate, but it just didn't happen. I mean, clearly, we saw some progress with the Paris Agreement. We've seen, definitely glimmers of hope with individual countries. In the US, we've seen hope with individual states leading on climate and taking actions that will ultimately make a difference. And we know we still have, you know, a narrowing window of time to act. But it's, you know, not unlike the current pandemic: Waiting too long, will cause more pain than taking action early. Neither is easy. And no one is saying that it's easy to do the things that need to be done. But we know from science, we know from economics as well, that the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action. We just need the political will internationally to push this the way it needs to go.

What has your personal experience been, working in the Arctic and experiencing the impacts of climate change?

00:00 / 01:29

When I started working in the Arctic, my first summer was 1991. And I was doing fisheries work and the Beaufort Sea and that summer, we were trying to use a small boat to get between Canada and Barrow. So basically, the entire North Slope of Alaska to track Arctic Char and Cisco (also called whitefish), that were using the coastal zone up there. And during the entire summer sea ice was no more than four to five miles offshore so we could always see it. And we always had drift ice coming and going. And we were in fact trapped in a bay by ice that had drifted in for I think 17 days, where we just couldn't go anywhere. When I go back now, in the summer, same months, the ice is 400 to 500 miles offshore. So, it went from four to 400 just in my career, and that’s a dramatic thing to see. If you could imagine that much of a forest disappearing, or that much of a savanna. I mean, it would shock people, I think. Because sea ice is so distant and far away, people just kind of shrug their shoulders when they see these massive amounts of habitat being lost. And perhaps the number is too big, it's hard to wrap your mind around. You know, just what a change and how dramatic it actually is.

How do climate change mitigation and control measures impact polar bear management?

00:00 / 01:26

With polar bears like other large wildlife species, we still have to manage them as we do with so many other things. We still have to manage harvests in this case, they are still used by indigenous peoples around the world for food, sustenance and culture. We definitely have to manage human disturbance, particularly industrial activities and including shipping, which also brings in tourism. With that, we definitely have to monitor for things like disease in the Arctic and for toxics. But at the end of the day, we know all of those things are such lower risk to polar bears, than climate and all of those things can and are managed by and large. I think we are getting to a time, and this has changed only in the last year or so, where climate in those traditional wildlife management issues are going to crash into each other. And what's going on to cause that is populations that are continuing to decline at fairly rapid rates. And populations that are starting to enter low numbers, where actions will need to be taken that we thought we'd never have to take in our lifetimes, and particularly around traditional wildlife management - specifically harvest.

What about other threats to polar bears, like pollution, oil and gas development?

00:00 / 02:58

When I look at things like shipping or offshore oil and gas, or even mining for polar bears, I see it in two different ways. When you look at some of those aspects individually specific to polar bears, you can say, 'Well, if they're well managed, a lot of the negative impacts or potential impacts could probably be mitigated'. And an example of this would be some of the development that's already occurred on land in Alaska. And I would say specific to polar bears. They've had a pretty good track record with their mitigation and mitigating their effects. But I think that also has spatial limitations. So, in Alaska, there's been a push recently to expand and that expansion could, if it were allowed to, extend from Point Barrow all the way to Canada, in which case, then you would suddenly have massive habitat fragmentation, you'd have huge potential for disruption of denning in key areas and I think you would have negative impacts to polar bears. The same is true when I think of offshore. When you think of an oil platform just sitting out the sea by itself and how polar bears might interact or relate to that, in general, like just that by itself, just one, they probably wouldn't care. They’re curious, but they quickly realize things that are important to them or not. The problem there is the disturbance and disruption of everything else. And so, the risk of a spill in the Arctic where there's no possibility to clean it up. None. No technology exists that has been proven to work in Arctic conditions. And the damage that could do to the pretty fragile Arctic ecosystem, that's a pretty massive risk to take. You know, two, say there is no spill. You still have disturbance, shipping, supporting these rigs going back and forth. So, you have tremendous amount of new undersea noise in particular. What's that doing to fish? What's that doing to the marine mammals, [which] polar bears need to survive? I think the real impacts are to them and would trickle up to polar bears. In that sense the same is true with mining. The same is true with too much tourism, too. You're just adding layers of disturbance, layers of noise to what's historically been a very quiet place, a very quiet environment. And I don't think we fully understand the potential long-term ramifications of some of that. And so, you just have to ask yourself, 'Is it worth the risk?'

What do you say to those that question polar bears’ classification as marine mammals?

00:00 / 01:02

I think there has been that hope, expressed by some that oh, polar bears will just shift over and live on land like their cousins do. But we know you know, nutritionally, physiologically and evolutionarily speaking, that's not going to happen. Polar bears, you know, have evolved very specifically for life on the sea ice and a diet high in fat. And that high fat diet comes from marine mammals. It doesn't come from other things like that, and their body over time has truly changed genetically from their brown bear cousins to optimize fat and to be able to, you know, live and be healthy with a diet that would probably kill humans in terms of the composition of it. So, we actually have human health people looking at that at aspects of that with polar bears. How can they eat such a, you know, unhealthy diet but be so healthy?

What does this mean for polar bear management?

00:00 / 00:55

In every range country save Canada, they're considered a marine mammal, and are treated as such and protected as such. And in most countries, I would say that gives them additional protections, and definitely gives them federal protections because marine mammals don't observe boundaries the same way some terrestrial animals do, and it makes more sense to manage them at a provincial or state level. In Canada, we'll see how it goes, because they're considered terrestrial in Canada they're managed by provinces and not by the federal government. As we see populations decline, and as we start to have difficult discussions around harvest, it'll be interesting to see if that provincial management survives.

How should polar bear management and conservation be governed, locally, nationally, regionally, internationally?

00:00 / 01:15

I think it's going to take all of the above. With the local approach, I mean, what we say is, we're not going to conserve a species unless the people who live with them agree to conserve that species. And so, it's quite easy for us in the South, in urban areas, away from polar bears to talk about polar bear conservation. It's quite another thing to live with a large predator like a polar bear. And so I think it's, it's that dance of the two, you need that on the ground, grassroots support and I think kind of where the rubber meets the road for wildlife conservation is also at that regional level where you have Conservation Officers who have communities on the ground, you have hunters on the ground, both out on the land and seeing things and sharing that information, you know, kind of up to those supranational sort of groups there. You need all the tools, not just one.

Where do you see the future of conservation heading? Do you see new agreements or maybe polar bears being included in larger agreements?

00:00 / 01:22

I would say all of the above, I hope. I definitely see new agreements. I hope to see sort of strengthening of existing agreements, like the Agreement for the Protection of Polar Pears, the 1973 agreement, that all the range states signed, when you look at that now the wording and that is something, I think almost no country would sign today, because it was pretty good for its time, for sure. But we need to basically go back and collectively reread what we promised to do and hold each other accountable, to make sure those things happen at that species level. And I think more broadly, and I hope again, something like this current pandemic reminds people of the importance of international collaboration that hopefully it will help strengthen groups like the Arctic Council and the work that they try to do that takes that more holistic, you know, circum-Arctic look at things. Because I think that's the only way we're really going to keep polar bears into the future in the long run is working together, supporting each other and holding each other accountable.

© Geoff York

Geoff York is PBI's Senior Director of Conservation. He has more than 20 years of Arctic field experience, most recently as the Arctic Species and Polar Bear Lead for WWF’s Global Arctic Program. While at WWF, Geoff immersed himself in international policy issues and was fortunate to work on field projects in Canada, Norway, Russia, and Alaska. Prior to that, he worked as a biologist and program manager for the U.S. Geological Survey's Polar Bear Project, the leading polar bear research team in the U.S., headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska. Since joining PBI, Geoff has continued his interest in field-based work across the Arctic. He is a member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team, a past chair and active member of the Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group, and sits on the advisory board for the International Polar Bear Conservation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has a M.S. in biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame, the perfect combination for communicating science. Following 14 consecutive seasons of capture based work on the sea ice north of Alaska, Geoff has dedicated his career to the conservation of polar bears and their Arctic home. He is based at PBI Headquarters in Bozeman, Montana.

Charlotte Gehrke coordinates the Arctic Relations project, led by Dr. Hannes Hansen-Magnusson. She was awarded a first-class degree in journalism, communications and politics from Cardiff University and is currently pursuing a master's in environmental policy at the Paris School of International Affairs (SciencesPo).

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