Pictures of a polar bear floating precariously on a tiny iceberg have become the defining image of global warming but may be misleading, according to a new study.

In the Davis Strait area, a 140,000-square kilometre region, the polar bear population has grown from 850 in the mid-1980s to 2,100 today.A survey of the animals’ numbers in Canada’s eastern Arctic has revealed that they are thriving, not declining, because of mankind’s interference in the environment.

“There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears,” said Mitch Taylor, a polar bear biologist who has spent 20 years studying the animals.

His findings back the claims of Inuit hunters who have long claimed that they were seeing more bears.

“Scientific knowledge has demonstrated that Inuit knowledge was right,” said Mr Taylor.

While fellow scientists have accepted Mr Taylor’s findings, critics point out that his study was commissioned by the Inuit-dominated government of Nunavit.

Critics claim the government has an agenda to encourage polar bear hunting and keep the animals off the endangered species list.

In small Inuit communities, hunters kill bears that wander too close to human settlements and, in this particular region, they are licensed to kill six polar bears a year.

Polar bear experts said that numbers had increased not because of climate change but due to the efforts of conservationists.

The battle to ban the hunting of Harp seal pups has meant the seal population has soared – boosting the bears’ food supply.

At the same time, fewer seal hunters are around to hunt bears.

“I don’t think there is any question polar bears are in danger from global warming,” said Andrew Derocher of the World Conservation Union, and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Albertain Edmonton. “People who deny that have a clear interest in hunting bears.”

Bear numbers on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay had shrunk by 22 per cent over the past decade, he said.

“They are declining due to global warming and changes in when the ice freezes and melts in Hudson’s Bay,” he added. He and other scientists in his group are concerned that the retreating ice in the Arcticmay pose a danger to future generations of polar bears because of ‘habitat loss’. “The critical problem is the sea ice is changing. “We’re looking ahead three generations, 30 to 50 years.

“To say that bear populations are growing in one area now is irrelevant.”

However, Prof Derocher conceded that some polar bear-related evidence of the damaging effect of global warming was misplaced.

Contrary to concern over a celebrated photograph of a bear and its cub floating on a tiny iceberg, the animals often travel in that way, he said.

“Bears will often hang out on glacier ice or large pieces of multi-year ice,” he said.

The state of Alaska yesterday questioned the scientific justification for proposals to add polar bears to the US endangered species list.

Tina Cunnings, a biologist attached to the Alaskan government, questioned whether they needed sea ice to survive, saying they could adapt to hunt on land and find alternative food sources to seals.

Prof Derocher said the theory was “absolutely fanciful”.

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