The two faces of polar bear biologists – Zac Unger interviews Amstrup and Stirling

Former firefighter Zac Unger has been in the news quite a lot over the last few months, promoting his new book, “Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye” (see Zac’s website here, where you’ll find a list of some of the articles he’s written; the Canadian Geographic one is very good (“The truth about polar bears”) and was the one that originally caught my attention in early December 2012. One article that I’ve read is missing from that list, “Are Polar Bears Really Disappearing?” (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 8, 2013). There is a book review in the Winnipeg Free Press here (Feb. 2, 2013) and on climate scientist Judith Curry’s blog (Dec. 21, 2012), and an interview with Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente here from Feb. 23, 2013).

I’ve mentioned bits from some of these articles previously: Featured Quote #32 (Feb. 23, 2013) and in my Dec. 16, 2012 post, ‘Species-threatening’ population declines vs. polar bear declines.

In my last post, I promised a follow-up discussion on cannibalism in polar bears, as it has been promoted by polar bear biologists. I recalled a discussion of this by Unger, which I think makes a nice lead-in for my own essay, which I should have up in a few days.

Here is the money quote from Unger (with a link to the NBC interview with Amstrup and Stirling he is talking about). A lengthy excerpt from the article is below, for the context – it’s well worth a read:

[In 2008, after watching polar bear biologist Dr. Steve Amstrup give an interview on NBC News explaining “the evidence behind the decision to list the polar bear as threatened. Evidence like cannibalism.”] “Wait a second. Hadn’t Amstrup just finished telling me that the cannibalism thing was getting too much play by a bloodthirsty media?” Zac Unger, PS Magazine, Dec. 17, 2012 [2:40 min. NBC News video here]

From this magazine article: The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change” (“Advocates and scientists have tied the Earth’s fate to that of the polar bear. But what happens if this lumbering giant proves more resilient than the rest of us?”) Pacific Standard Magazine, Zac Unger. December 17, 2012.

Excerpt from the article below, quote portion in red, some essential context for it I’ve highlighted in bold.

And then, through the magic of bullshitting my way into the right place at the right time, I was granted a sudden audience with Steven Amstrup and Ian Stirling as they blew through Churchill on a media blitz.

If my initial phone calls with the two men had been intimidating, meeting them in person was a hundred times more so. Amstrup was tall and angular, and the way he stared at me made me feel like I was being humiliated in front of the entire class. Stirling was smaller in stature, and warier; within the first two minutes he told me that he had “gained a bit of a reputation for being grumpy.” I couldn’t disagree.

I figured the best place to start was with what had led me—and everyone else—to the story in the first place: cannibalism. Amstrup’s paper had hit the world like a hammer. The idea that bears were so hungry that they were devouring each other was too horrifying to ignore.

And yet the intense focus on this single story bothered me. It wasn’t a controlled experiment, after all. It was only a frozen moment, an anecdote that came to represent the whole. I asked Amstrup whether he worried about the way the public ignored decades of research and focused on the one paper that had blood all over it.

He looked me over coolly and said, “The important thing with regard to those sorts of snapshots is—are they consistent with what we might expect to see in a changing environment where the animals are becoming nutritionally stressed?” He leaned back on the couch with his hands on his knees, looking like the statue of Lincoln on the National Mall. His voice was deep, and I felt that if I interrupted him he would smite me with a bolt of lightning.

“There’s no way that you could put your finger on it and say, ‘Well, that’s the fingerprint of climate change, or that’s caused by global warming.’ It happened that the sorts of observations that are reported in that paper were things we hadn’t seen before, and so they caught our attention. That doesn’t mean that they never happened before. It could have been that they happened out there and we just never observed it,” he continued, “ So it’s the kind of thing that’s consistent with what we might expect to see happening in the environment, but you can’t necessarily say that that’s the cause. And I think that we did a very good job in the paper of making that point. And in the subsequent interviews I think that we made that point very effectively. But it wasn’t always carried that way, and it wasn’t always translated that way into the general media.”

This was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear! I’d been worried that he’d recognized the graphic value of what he’d seen and had been exploiting it to make his point.

When I asked whether he was bothered by how the media used his findings, Amstrup’s response was pitch-perfect. “Scientific credibility suffers because of that,” he said. “The point is that you have to present it in a careful fashion and if the media takes it and embellishes it and spectacularizes it, then you lose the scientific connection … and that’s really critical to people like us. We have to maintain that.” His measured tones and eminently reasonable ideas were a cool rebuke to anyone who ever said that the threat to polar bears was overblown. Including me.

Amstrup reassured me that the data collection and analysis had not been hurried in order to get the polar bear listed as threatened; Stirling described lab tests that proved that although bears might eat berries, they weren’t metabolizing them for nutritional benefit. And when Amstrup described the care he took in his statistical modeling, I came away assured that the population projections were as ironclad as could be hoped for in this inexact field.

But what went furthest toward restoring my faith was that Amstrup never used the word zero. The specter of zero polar bears, of complete extinction like dinosaurs and dodo birds, is the extremist fantasy that thrills every television producer looking for a heartstring-tugging top story. And the environmental groups have their radar tuned to the exact same frequency; “significant population decline” is a snoozer, but zero can get bleeding hearts from coast to coast to open their wallets.

When I asked Amstrup point blank whether the polar bears would go extinct, he was quick to demur. The consensus was that for a long time there would be ice somewhere in the high Arctic. And where there is ice, there will be bears. Not very many bears, but not complete extinction either. “There are likely to be small pockets of bears,” Amstrup said, in “places where walrus are going to increasingly haul out on land as the sea ice retreats. … Some polar bears will figure that out. So there may be some small pockets of bears that figure out some kind of an equilibrium where they can survive the ice-free period. But it’s not very consistent with what we know about polar bears to suggest that whole populations of bears … are likely to survive in the terrestrial environment.”

Order had been restored to my crunchy liberal universe. I still thought that Rocky made sense when he spoke about the integrity of the scientific process, but these guys weren’t charlatans—my word, not Rocky’s—and they weren’t purposefully overselling their research.

“This was a good interview,” Amstrup said as he unfolded his long frame from the couch. “It’s obvious that you’ve done your homework.” It was good that he felt that way; I’d only spent the last year neglecting my family in order to read about polar bears, global warming, and nothing else. Talking to Amstrup had been a perfect capper to my months of research. And the best part was that he hadn’t come close to saying that every last polar bear was about to die.

Which is why I was so surprised to see Amstrup and Stirling on TV the next day.

The on-camera science reporter was a cheerful roly-poly fellow who never emerged from an immense canary-yellow parka. The film was classic Arctic stuff, all blowing snow and near-catastrophe on the tundra. He actually narrated one segment from the back of a moving dogsled. None of that was particularly upsetting; television is television, after all. But when Amstrup and Stirling came on-screen for their star turns, I was shocked by what they said. The anchorman assumed his most portentous voice, describing a bleak tableau of starving polar bears, despite the fact that this had been a relatively fat year. “They’re under stress,” he said, his voice heavy, before turning to “Dr. Steven Amstrup,” who has “joined me on our Tundra Buggy to explain the evidence behind the decision to list the polar bear as threatened. Evidence like cannibalism.”

Cut to Amstrup, handsome and grave, wind in his hair, the Voice of Truth.

“Large adult males that were clearly stalking, killing, and eating other bears,” he said. “So it wasn’t a situation where bears were having a fight over a mate or something like that and one of them was killed in the process and the other bear decided, ‘Well, as long as I’ve got a dead bear here I’ll go ahead and eat it.’ It was actual stalking and killing and then consuming other animals. That sort of thing we just hadn’t seen in all the years I’d been there.” [2:40 min. video]

Wait a second. Hadn’t Amstrup just finished telling me that the cannibalism thing was getting too much play by a bloodthirsty media? Although I knew he hadn’t approved the lead-in claiming that cannibalism and the endangered-species listing were directly connected, he wasn’t a media naïf, either. He must have known that phrases like stalking and killing would incite any producer’s most lurid instincts. At the very least, he wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to tamp down the hype he’d just been decrying. The camera cut to a patch of bloodstained snow. Although I could tell the gore was from some kind of scientific bear handling, few viewers would fail to connect the blood with the word cannibalism in the broadcast.

Amstrup continued: “The projections that we developed last year, based on the data that we have and the climate models projecting what the future of sea ice is going to be … those projections suggest that polar bears are going to be absent from the Beaufort Sea of Alaska by the middle of this century.” Absent. There it was: the zero.

I had his report in front of me, and I flipped to the introduction: “Projections using minimal ice levels forecasted potential extirpation in this ecoregion by year [2050], whereas projections using maximal ice levels forecasted steady declines but not extirpation by year [2100].” Conditional and dispassionate—not exactly the same thing as zero. The paper was a model of restraint, pointing out uncertainties and the potential for alternative outcomes. The possibility of eradication referred to a specific subpopulation—the southern Beaufort Sea group—rather than all bears, but it’s not like the average TV viewer has a tight grasp of circumpolar geography.

Neither Amstrup nor the anchor bothered to point out that the population whose imminent death they were lamenting was almost 2,000 miles away from the bears they were currently filming. Nothing was said about the subpopulations of polar bears that were holding steady or increasing.

When Stirling came on camera looking grumpy and annoyed, I threw my hands up in frustration. “This is the most serious thing that has happened in recorded history,” he said.

Upset as I was about Stirling and Amstrup resorting to cannibalism in front of the cameras, I understood. Hard science is an impossibly tough sell. From years of doing media, Amstrup had to have known that he’d have only a few minutes to make his case. And nothing sells like blood. I had to admit that I’d wanted the cannibalism story to be the beginning and the end of it, too. It was too good a disaster metaphor to ignore. I’d even used it on the very first page of my book.

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