His search to understand the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) has taken him to one of the harshest environments in the world – a frozen seascape where temperatures plummet below zero and the sun isn’t seen for months on end. Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, the most influential person working on polar bear conservation today, has been selected from among a group of six outstanding finalists to receive the 2012 Indianapolis Prize – the world’s leading award for animal conservation.
Hope that the iconic and endangered polar bear may survive is due in large part to Dr. Amstrup and his team and their groundbreaking studies that resulted in the listing of polar bears as a threatened species because of global warming. Amstrup’s three decades of polar bear research and his unwavering conviction that solutions can and must be found are creating new optimism that polar bears can be saved from extinction. It is in recognition of his life-long work to transform the world’s understanding of and efforts to save polar bears that Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, has been named the recipient of the Indianapolis Prize. The biennial Prize includes an unrestricted award of $100,000 and the Lilly Medal, which will be presented at the Indianapolis Prize Gala ceremony presented by Cummins, Inc. on Sept. 29, 2012, at the JW Marriott Hotel in Indianapolis.
In 2007 Amstrup led an international team of researchers to assess the likely future impact of global warming on polar bears. The group’s nine reports, relied on by the Secretary of the Interior, became the basis for the 2008 listing of polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This listing is significant because the polar bear is the first species – and only species to date – to be listed on the basis of threats posed by global warming.
Early in his career as polar bear research leader for the U.S. Geological Survey, Amstrup solved the decades-old mystery of where Alaskan polar bears go to give birth to their young. His finding that more than half of the mother bears denned on drifting ice floes, which are highly susceptible to rising temperatures, was a prescient indication of the vulnerability of polar bears to a warming world. This and other discoveries regarding the polar bear’s dependence on sea ice led to Amstrup’s 2007 projection that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by midcentury, and all could be lost by the end of the century, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on the present course. Those discoveries also showed that changing our greenhouse gas emissions path could save polar bears.
“Steven’s fieldwork in the Arctic opened the door to understanding that the deterioration of the polar bear population is at our doorstep, while verifying that this is not an irreversible situation,” said Robert Buchanan, President/CEO, Polar Bears International. “His passionate outreach has helped the world understand how sea ice losses from a warming climate threaten polar bear survival. His message is one of hope and determination to have future generations see polar bears roam free in the Arctic.”
“Steve Amstrup is widely regarded as the most important and influential scientist working on polar bear conservation today,” said Michael Crowther, President and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo. “By bringing greater awareness to the polar bears’ plight and plausible solutions, he has created a lifeline for the entire species.”
Born in Fargo, N.D., Amstrup received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, his master of science from the University of Idaho in Moscow, and his doctorate from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Amstrup currently resides in Kettle Falls, Wash., with his wife Virginia, and maintains electronic connection with the Polar Bears International office in Bozeman, Mont.
The 2010 biennial Indianapolis Prize was awarded to legendary elephant advocate Iain Douglas-Hamilton. His accomplishments span decades and continents, bringing global attention to the issue of blood ivory and inspiring others to join the battle against poachers and traders.