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UPDATE: Zoo Tries New Tactic to Get Polar Bears

Kevin Killeen
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St. Louis Zoo
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - The St. Louis Zoo will likely have a new polar bear exhibit in a few years, but if the feds don’t help out, it may not get any bears for the exhibit.

St. Louis Zoo Director Doc. Jeffery Bonner says the reason the feds need to allow the capture of Canadian Polar Bears is to help the population. Their sea ice is developing later in the year and melting earlier.

“When there is no ice and they are walking around on land it’s a period of what we call walking hibernation or walking starvation. They can’t eat, there is nothing for them to eat” said Doctor Bonner. ( Polar bears are marine feeders and eat mainly seals.)

Doc. Bonner is currently working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department to try and get permission for all North American zoos to bring in the bears.

Under Bush administration polar bears were listed as endangered. To import them, a zoo has to show its increasing their habitat and augmenting their population in the wild, Bonner said.

The way Fish and Wildlife has chosen to interpret this, Bonner says, is that you have to expand sea ice, something the St. Louis Zoo can’t do.

“Right now the interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act is such that it’s really impossible to bring bears in,” Bonner said. 

‘You and I know that the Endangered Species Act was not meant to consign animals to an untimely death, but in fact that’s what’s happening,” Bonner said, “We’re getting orphaned bears, stranded bears, compromised bears, starving bears, and we can’t rescue them because of the letter of the law.”

Bonner says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe has developed an approach that may allow polar bears to be imported — without a permit.

“We want to do research on polar bear reproduction,” Bonner said, “and we think that would meet the intent of the law, allowing us ultimately to augment populations.”

In the wild, Bonner says, polar bears live in smaller local clusters, creating a problem of “gene flow,” in which they are “too isolated to maintain they’re genetic viability.”

 “A zoo like the St. Louis Zoo can’t really introduce bears, but we can introduce bear genetics,” Bonner said, “So we could introduce eggs or semen from assurance populations in U.S. zoos back into the wild.”

Bonner says the scenario of tranquilizing a female polar bear in the wild and artificially inseminating her would be hindered by our limited understanding of polar bear reproduction.

“We really don’t know how to do that yet,” Bonner said, “Polar bears might what we call induced ovulators, but we don’t know. And they might be what we called delayed implanters. What that means is you could have a fertilized egg floating around in a mother bear’s uterus, but it doesn’t attach to the uterine wall right away.”

Bonner is arguing that the St. Louis Zoo is ideally situated with its staff of endocrinologists , trained veterinarians , a PHD in reproductive physiology and geneticists to expand the knowledge of polar bear reproduction.

“That’s the kind of research protocol that Fish and Wildlife and the St. Louis Zoo are working on together,” Bonner said

Bonner says his plan to bring back the polar bears has also been on the to-do list of the Missouri Congressional delegation. He says Senator McCaskill, Congressman Clay and Representative Cleaver participated in a conference call on polar bear policy with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees Fish and Wildlife. Bonner says Senator Blunt has also been active in the project.

The St. Louis Zoo is planning a $20-million Polar Bear exhibit with bigger chilled salt water pools, by 2016. The zoo has raised about $100 million toward a $120 million capital improvement project that includes the polar bears.

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