Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

Polar bear expert nominated for conservation prize


A Kettle Falls-area polar bear scientist is one of 29 leading conservationists internationally who are in contention for next year’s $100,000 Indianapolis Prize.

Steven Amstrup moved to Stevens County about a year ago when he retired from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage.

Thanks to an accommodating polar bear, he arrived with both legs.

Once, when he was convinced a den burrowed in snow was empty, Amstrup began digging out what he thought was the opening so he could take measurements.

“My right leg fell though the roof of the lair,” he said. “I looked down and there was the female polar bear about two inches from my thigh.”

Amstrup said “it was exciting there for a moment” when he looked the bear in the eye, but he quickly extricated himself by rolling on his side.

“I can’t imagine why she didn’t bite me,” he said. “I thought I was going to be pulled into the lair and devoured.”

Fortunately, the bear wasn’t aggressive as polar bears go.

Amstrup said she “went after me for a little bit,” then gave his assistant the same treatment. He said the bear ran off when their pilot fired up the team’s helicopter.

Thirty of Amstrup’s 37 years as a wildlife research biologist were devoted to polar bears. He led a team that prepared nine reports that resulted in the 2008 federal listing of polar bears as a threatened species – the first designation on the basis of global warming.

Now he is the senior scientist for Polar Bears International, an education-oriented advocacy organization whose U.S. headquarters is in Bozeman.

The Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg is near polar bear habitat, but the Bozeman site was “largely a matter of serendipity,” Amstrup said. Four of seven employees happened to live there, and a cheap building was available.

Kettle Falls, on the other hand, was a well-researched choice for Amstrup and his wife, Virginia.

“We probably had been looking for 10 years” before buying property in 2007, he said.

The couple liked that the area is “relatively unsettled” and that its economy depends on nature.

Friendly people, four seasons and milder winters also contributed to the decision.

“We wanted a shorter, milder winter with more daylight,” Amstrup said. “Daylight was a big one.”

Digital communications overcome the 475 miles between Kettle Falls and Bozeman, as it does for Polar Bear International employees in Louisiana and Maryland.

Amstrup said he feels “highly honored” to have been nominated for “one of the most prestigious prizes in the conservation field.

“The past winners and past nominees have been real giants in the field of conservation, so I feel like I’m in great company,” he said.

The nominating committee for the biennial award will name six finalists next spring, and a prize jury will choose a winner by summer. The prize will be awarded at a Sept. 29 gala in Indianapolis.