Polar bear researcher wins top conservation prize

Polar bear researcher Steven Amstrup, whose work is credited with helping lead to greater federal protections for the animals, was named Thursday as winner of the 2012 Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation.

The award, announced by the sponsoring Indianapolis Zoo, recognizes Amstrup's work with other researchers about the possible impact of global warming on polar bears. That research helped lead to polar bears being listed as a threatened species in 2008 by showing that many Alaskan polar bears give birth on drifting ice floes that are susceptible to rising temperatures, prize organizers said.

Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, called Amstrup the most influential scientist working on polar bear conservation.

"By bringing greater awareness to the polar bears' plight and plausible solutions, he has created a lifeline for the entire species," Crowther said.

Amstrup, 62, of Kettle Falls, Wash., is the chief scientist for Bozeman, Mont.-based Polar Bears International, which works with dozens of zoos and aquariums across the county on education programs about the animals. He previously was a polar bear researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska.

Amstrup is to receive the $100,000 prize and the Lilly Medal during a Sept. 29 gala in Indianapolis.

Amstrup spends much of his time now working to educate the public, government officials and industry leaders about the impact of global warming.

"Across the board, people have not done a very good job of recognizing this threat," Amstrup told The Indianapolis Star. "People can't really appreciate climate."

Amstrup said fellow researchers need to be clearer in their writing and less wavering.

"As scientists, we tend to lead our reports with our uncertainties. We are conservative about what we are willing to say," Amstrup said. "But that can lead to too-specific and too-narrow conclusions about the threat of global warming. That needs to be broadened out. We need to keep the big picture in mind and make a statement about it."

The prize, funded by the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation, is given every two years and claims to be the world's richest individual award for animal conservation. Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Kenya won the prize in 2010.

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