Steve Amstrup says he was overwhelmed when he learned he was the winner of the Indianapolis Prize.
“All the years that I worked on polar bears and other animal species before I came to Alaska I wanted to think I was doing something important but you never really know how its viewed by other people and this is certainly an affirmation that others in my field think that some of the work I’ve done has been important.”
The Indianapolis prize is awarded every two years to a legendary figure in the conservation world. It comes with a $100,000 award. Amstrup is only the fourth recipient of the prize. He won in part for his research in 2007 suggesting that two thirds of the world’s polar bear population could be gone by the middle of this century because of sea ice loss. But Amstrup didn’t want to give the world the message that all hope was lost for saving the species:
“There was some question about whether that was an irreversible trend. People were talking about tipping points in the sea ice and that we may have already passed the point of no return and polar bears were going to go away regardless of what we did.”
So in 2010, Amstrup published research showing humans could reverse the course of sea ice loss by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
“I think that was really the big thing, identifying the threat and then identifying also that there is a way out.”
Amstrup acknowledges the “way out” is not easy. And he says he goes through bouts of depression when he realizes how far humans still are from making the necessary changes. But overall, he remains optimistic:
“The challenges are big. You’re not going to save polar bears by changing your light bulbs. But we are using far more energy than we need to and more recklessly than we need to and I do believe we still have a way forward to turn things around to save substantial number of polar bears. And if we do that, we will have brought about major benefits to much of the rest of life on earth.”
In 2010, Amstrup retired from the USGS office in Anchorage and went to work for the conservation group Polar Bears International. When he left, he says there were still many interesting research questions he would have liked to have pursued at the federal agency. But he says the biggest question had already been answered:
“We already knew the answer to the question how to save polar bears from extinction. So at that time I said to myself it’s time to refocus my energies on outreach and education and conveying the message that what we need to do is change the way we live. There is still time to do it.”
Amstrup hopes the Indianapolis Prize, and the attention that comes with it, will help him spread his conservation message even further. He and his wife are building a small house on land in rural eastern Washington. They plan to live mostly off the land there, shrinking their carbon footprint as much as possible. Amstrup is still deciding how to spend his prize money, but he would like to donate some of it and use some to pay for carbon saving innovations for his new house. He’ll receive the prize and the Lilly Medal Sept. 29 in Indianapolis.