So I was in the area...
Polar bears, the lumbering carnivores of the arctic, continue to be the poster bear - er, child - for global warmers everywhere who are convinced the baby seal munchers are being driven to extinction by man's irresponsible release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Next to whales, the cuddly fur balls enjoy a special place on the "Animals to Love" list. Grown-ups adore them (provided it's from a safe distance), and grade-school kids who can't find Greenland or Manitoba on a map raid their penny jars to save them.

But are the denizens of the deep north facing extinction? Are they in desperate need of saving? It depends on who you ask.

According to the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), the polar bear population is on shaky ground - actually, ice - because of warmer temperatures and shrinking ice floe in the Arctic triggered by the favorite bad-guy of the green movement - anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

In a news release issued after its conference last July, the PBSG concluded that only one of 19 total polar bear subpopulations is currently increasing, three are stable and eight are declining. Data was insufficient to determine numbers for the remaining seven subpopulations. The group estimated that the total number of polar bears is somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000. (Estimates of the population during the 1950s and 1960s, before harvest quotas were enacted, range from 5,000 to 10,000.)

However, the PBSG quickly acknowledged that "the mixed quality of information on the different subpopulations means there is much room for error in establishing" the numbers, and "the potential for error, given the ongoing and projected changes in habitats and other potential stresses, is cause for concern."

Despite those problems, the PBSG said it is optimistic that "humans can mitigate the effects of global warming and other threats to the polar bears."

Not so fast. According to a U.S. Senate and Public Works Committee report, the alarm about the future of polar bear decline is based on speculative computer model predictions many decades in the future. Those predictions are being "challenged by scientists and forecasting experts," said the report.

Those challenges, supported by facts on the ground, including observations from Inuit hunters in the region, haven't stopped climate fear-mongers at the U.S. Geological Survey from proclaiming that future sea ice conditions "will result in the loss of approximately two-thirds of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century."

Such sky-is-falling rhetoric brings smiles to the Inuit population of Canada's Nunavut Territory. They, too, know how to count, and they claim the bear population is stable or on the rise in their own backyard. Polar bears may be on the decline in some areas, but during their frequent visits to Inuit towns and outposts they rarely decline an easy meal from the local dump or a poorly secured garbage can.

Harry Flaherty, chair of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in the capital of Iqaluit, says the polar bear population in the region, along the Davis Strait, has doubled during the past 10 years. He questions the official figures, which are based to a large extent on helicopter surveys.

"Scientists do a quick study one to two weeks in a helicopter, and don't see all the polar bears. We're getting totally different stories [about the bear numbers] on a daily basis from hunters and harvesters on the ground," he says.

Dr. Mitchell Taylor, a biologist who has been researching polar bear populations in Canada's Nunavut Territory for 35 years, seems to agree. "The study estimates from the Iqaluit area agree with those of local hunters, although the accuracy of the counts is doubtful in some areas," he says.

Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of wildlife for Nunavut Tuungavik Inc., is another doubter who questions the accuracy of helicopter surveys. "Helicopters have many limitations, including fuel capacity. They can't go far out into the open water," he says. But hunters crisscrossing the area by dog team, snowmobile or boat "are seeing polar bears where scientists and helicopters are not traveling."

Forty years ago, old-timers living in the area around Hudson Bay were lucky to see a polar bear, Nirlungayuk says. "Now there are bears living as far south as James Bay."

The growing population has become "a real problem," especially over the last 10 years, he says. During the summer and fall, families enjoying outdoor activities must be on the look-out for bears. Many locals invite along other hunters for protection.

Last year, in Pelly Bay, all the bears that were captured were caught in town, Nirlungayuk says. "You now have polar bears coming into towns, getting into cabins, breaking property and just creating havoc for people up here," he says.

In the Western Hudson Bay area, where harvest quotas were reduced by 80 percent four years ago, communities are complaining about the number of polar bears. "Now people can look out the window and see as many as 20 polar bears at the ice-flow edge," Flaherty says.

During a public hearing last September focusing on the polar bear population in the Baffin Bay region, hunters reported more sightings of females with three cubs. The normal litter is one or two. Flaherty, himself a serious hunter, says the abundant food supply - primarily baby ring seals - in the area is responsible for the bigger litters.

The on-the-ground reports, if accurate, seem to contradict the official story of the beleaguered polar bear. According to the standard theory, warmer temperatures (caused by human CO2 emissions) are shrinking the ice floe, the polar bear's main hunting ground, forcing populations to compete for a diminishing food supply. Warmer temperatures also are to blame for the loss of thicker "multi-year ice."

Flaherty and many others disagree with the official story. "We are aware there are changes in the weather, but it is not affecting the daily life of the animals," he says. "Polar bears hunt in the floe-edge areas, on newly formed ice, and in the fiords in search of baby seals. They don't hunt in the glaciers [areas of multi-year ice].

"We're not seeing negative effects on the polar bear population from so-called climate change and receding ice," he says. He is convinced that some scientists are deliberately "using the polar bear issue to scare people" about global warming, a view widely shared by many Nunavut locals.

It has warmed in the region and, as Taylor confirms, the summer sea-ice boundary has been slowly contracting for the last 30 years and experienced a big decline in 2007 - an event that was widely reported as evidence of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming.

However, the shrinking sea ice does not affect polar bear numbers uniformly, he emphasizes. "Even in adjacent sub-populations, the impact may vary," he says. "Every population is ecologically different. Some populations may actually benefit from less sea ice."

Taylor downplays the theory that CO2 is the culprit responsible for warmer Arctic temperatures. Other factors, including wind-driven ice movement, shifting ocean currents, reduced albedo effect (less snow-cover resulting in less heat reflection) and increased water vapor (the major greenhouse gas) from a growing expanse of ice-free water, leading to warmer air temperatures, may be influencing the local climate, he says.

"Arctic warming is real, but just because it's warmer doesn't mean it's caused by carbon dioxide. I don't think CO2 is the main factor causing it."

He notes that the current model forecasts, which show elevated CO2 levels triggering global temperature increases, don't agree with the contemporary temperature record. "When predictions don't match the observations, scientists should say 'there is something wrong here.'"

The IPCC models, he claims, are "multiplying the effect of CO2 to obtain the temperature increases they predict," a criticism shared by others in the scientific community who have openly accused modelers of data manipulation.

"The idea that these models can make predictions 50 to 100 years into the future seems, frankly, absurd to me."

Both Nirlungayuk and Flaherty ridicule media claims that the polar bear is threatened or on the verge of extinction.

"Polar bears are very intelligent . . . they have adapted through many climate changes for thousands of years. They are not going to wait around for the ice to freeze to start hunting. They live on more than just seals," says Nirlungayuk.

Adds Flaherty: "At the end of the day, the King of the North will always be here. When we hear that polar bears are headed towards extinction, we just kind of smile at ourselves."