The scientific abomination that is the “Circumpolar Monitoring Framework for Polar Bears”

I keep coming across mentions of a grandiose plan for future polar bear research and conservation called the “Circumpolar Monitoring Framework for Polar Bears.”

This “framework” plan was referred to extensively at the recent International Polar Bear Forum (aka the “Meeting of the Parties” that signed the 1973 conservation treaty) held in Moscow, December 3-6, 2013 (see posts about the meeting here, here, and here). In fact, government representatives of all Arctic nations present at that meeting agreed in principle to support the proposed plan.

No media reports that I’ve come across after the Moscow polar bear meeting explained what the “monitoring framework” involved, so I’ve composed a brief summary and commentary, aided by some images from Dag Vongraven’s presentation in Moscow (Vongraven 2013; pdf here).

In short, Arctic government representatives at the Moscow forum agreed that all future polar bear research should be constrained by the premise that increases in global temperatures over the next century will occur exactly as predicted by climate models and will negatively affect polar bears precisely as predicted by models devised by polar bear biologists. Under the plan, subpopulations that are already showing predicted effects of global warming will get the bulk of research funds, while regions that are paradoxically not responding as predicted will get much less money for research and survey efforts. 

This strategy proposes a coordinated research plan that is blatantly agenda-driven: implementing it would seriously compromise the usefulness of all research results generated for decades to come. I don’t think it’s anything close to being a scientifically valid plan, but decide for yourself. 

Figure 1. Vongraven 2013, Slide 1.

Figure 1. Vongraven 2013, Title slide.


The official “monitoring framework” peer-reviewed paper that lays out the plan in detail (Vongraven et al. 2012, abstract below) is available only to subscribers of Ursus. Surprisingly, in his preface to what is supposed to be a special issue reserved for monographs (which this paper is not) the editor, Richard Harris, reminds readers that the paper represents “the opinions of the authors as to what is an appropriate and effective monitoring strategy for polar bears” (Harris 2012). Harris also made this astonishing admission:

“…I believe their views on what constitutes an appropriate monitoring strategy merit publication even if these views cannot be tested with rigorous experimental design and resulting statistical tests.” [my bold]

This caveat suggests that all or some of the reviewers of this paper objected to its unscientific foundation. However, as was his prerogative, Harris decided to publish the paper anyway. [note that Harris is no longer editor of the Ursus journal]

OK, but what does the proposed plan entail and what are the problems?

The plan organizes all international polar bear research around the premise that polar bear populations in the future will be increasingly harmed by sea ice declines caused by anthropogenic global warming (“climate warming” in their lexicon). For example, Vongraven’s slide 2 (Fig. 2) says this plan is necessary because:

Anthropogenic climate warming undermines the concept of sustainability on which historic management has been based and dramatically increases the challenges to future polar bear welfare

and because:

although climate warming ultimately threatens all polar bears, it will not affect all bears at the same time or in the same ways.

Computer modeled predictions of global temperature increases over the next century, in other words, are accepted as an inevitable reality, as are the impacts that these changes are predicted to have on Arctic sea ice.

This Polar Bear Forum presentation lays out the global warming assumptions accepted by polar bear biologists: Vladimir Kattsov Climate change as a threat for polar bear.” 

[All Polar Bear Forum presentations available here]

Figure 2. Amstrup et al. 2013, Slide 2.

Figure 2. Vongraven 2013, Slide 2.

However, the acceptance of predicted global warming as an inevitable realty isn’t the worst of the plan’s problems: the monitoring plan’s practical foundation involves the dubious concept of “sea ice ecoregions” (Fig. 3), defined by Amstrup et al. (2008) and discussed in a previous post here.

Sea ice in each of the four defined ice ecoregions (Fig. 3) is expected to respond similarly to predicted increases in global temperature over the next century, and by extension, the polar bear populations within them are predicted to respond similarly to changing ice conditions.

The “monitoring framework” plan uses this system of classification as a rationale for treating all subpopulations within a given sea ice ecoregion as equivalent entities for research purposes: research results from one polar bear subpopulation within a particular sea ice ecoregion becomes a proxy for all other subpopulations within that region.

However, recent research has shown this premise is false. For example, the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort are both considered “Divergent ice” ecoregions but polar bear populations within these two regions have not responded in a similar manner to recent sea ice declines, as I’ve discussed previously (here; see also Rode et al. 2013a,b).

However, the “framework” plan for the “Divergent ice” ecoregion will focus high quality (“high intensity”) research and population survey efforts (Fig. 4) on the Southern Beaufort and Barents Sea only, allowing researchers to ignore or downplay contradictory evidence from the Chukchi Sea (Figs. 5-6).

Figure 3. Sea ice ecoregions used to predict the future of polar bears (this version from Rode et al. 2013 (the Wakefield presentation). Figure 3. Polar bear “ecoregions,” from Rode et al. 2013. See discussion on recent contradictions regarding polar bear responses with regard to ecoregions in this post, “How and why great news about Chukchi polar bears has been suppressed.”

Figure 3. Sea ice ecoregions used to predict the future of polar bears (this version from Rode et al. 2013b. See discussion on recent contradictions regarding polar bear responses with regard to ecoregions in this post, How and why great news about Chukchi polar bears has been suppressed.

Similarly, Western Hudson Bay, Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin and Davis Strait are all classified as “Seasonal ice” regions (Fig. 3) but polar bear populations within these four regions have not responded in a equivalent manner to recent increases in the ice-free season (i.e., early breakup and/or later freeze-up, see previous summary post here). While the subpopulation in Western Hudson Bay has shown a small decline in population size and other undocumented changes (almost all of the most recent data for WHB has not been published), paradoxically, under virtually the same sea ice conditions, the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation has been stable, the Foxe Basin subpopulation has been stable (Stapleton et al. 2012), and the Davis Strait subpopulation has increased (see previous post here and here).

However, the “framework” plan for the “seasonal ice” ecoregion will focus all high quality (“high intensity”) research and population survey efforts (Fig. 4) on Western Hudson Bay only, allowing researchers to ignore or downplay contradictory evidence from Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, and Davis Strait (Figs. 5-6).

Figure 5. Amstrup et al. 2013, Slide 11.

Figure 4. Vongraven 2013, Slide 11. “High intensity” regions (green bars) will get the most research funds and survey effort. “Medium intensity” regions would get substantially less research attention, see Fig. 6.

Figure 6. Amstrup et al. 2013, Slide 12.

Figure 5. Vongraven 2013, Slide 12. Planned “monitoring intensity” regions mapped out. In this plan, the grouping of the Lancaster Sound (LS) and Norwegian Bay (NW) subpopulation regions with the new region designated “Norwegian Bay Convergent” (NWCon) suggests this Central Arctic cluster may become a new amalgamated subpopulation, see previous post on the upcoming changes to polar bear subpopulation boundaries by the by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Figure 7. Amstrup et al. 2013, Slide 14.

Figure 6. Vongraven 2013, Slide 14.

Polar bear biologists worldwide form a small pool of researchers competing for limited funding resources.  If good quality research and survey effort is directed only towards subpopulations that are already showing some of the expected effects of global warming, how will we know if the other subpopulations continue to show contradictory effects? We won’t, because the peer-reviewable research simply won’t get done — the relevant data won’t be collected.

The vote on formal acceptance of this plan will not take place until 20151. So there is still hope that representatives of Arctic nations will reject it, or insist on major amendments, or find ways to delay or avoid implementing the plan.

In my opinion, our understanding of natural polar bear biology and population ecology is already severely skewed by the fact that populations have only recently recovered from decades of wanton slaughter. Now is not the time to abandon unbiased scientific research — there is so much we don’t know about polar bears. Unfortunately, this research plan is so blatantly agenda-driven that implementing it would skew data collection and research results for decades to come. What a travesty for science that would be.

Footnotes:
1. This is the pertinent part of the agreement that all Arctic representatives signed in December 2013 (from Canada’s press release):

“Understanding the importance of the issues we face and their possible impacts on future generations, we, the representatives of polar bear range states declare our commitment to continue to work actively to implement the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in order to:

Use the Circumpolar Action Plan for polar bear as the appropriate mechanism for international cooperation in managing and reducing stressors on polar bears and their ecosystems, in furtherance of the 1973 Agreement;

At the next range states meeting, in 2015, seek to finalize and adopt the Circumpolar Action Plan for polar bear, accompanied by an implementation plan that evaluates human and financial resource implications;” [my bold]

References
All Polar Bear Forum presentations available here

Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G., Douglas, D.C. 2008. A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears. Pgs. 213-268 in Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Observations, Projections, Mechanisms, and Implications, E.T. DeWeaver, C.M. Bitz, and L.B. Tremblay (eds.). Geophysical Monograph 180. American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/180GM14/summary and http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/polar_bears/pubs.html

Harris, R.B. 2012. Preface to “A circumpolar monitoring framework for polar bears.” Ursus 23 (sp2):fmiii-fmiii. http://dx.doi.org/10.2192/1537-6176-23.sp2.fmiii

Kattsov, V. 2013 Presentation 4.7 at the International Polar Bear Forum, December 3-6, Moscow. pdf here: Climate change as a threat for polar bear.

Rode, K.D., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2013a. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Oral presentation by Karyn Rode, 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, March 26-29. Anchorage, AK. Abstract below, pdf here.

Rode, K.D., Regehr, E.V., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2013b (accepted). Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Global Change Biology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract

Stapleton, S., Peacock, E., and Garshelis, D. 2012. Foxe Basin polar bear aerial survey. Nunavut Wildlife Research Trust, Government of Nunavut, Igloolik. Pdf here.

Vongraven, D., Aars, J., Amstrup, S., Atkinson, S.N., Belikov, S., Born, E.W., DeBruyn, T., Derocher, A.E., Durner, G., Gill, M., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., Omelak, J., Ovsyanikov, N., Peacock, E., Richardson, E., Sahanatien, V., Stirling, I., Wiig, Ø. 2012. A circumpolar monitoring framework for polar bears. Ursus 23 (sp2): 1-66. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.2192/URSUS-D-11-00026.1

Abstract
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) occupy remote regions that are characterized by harsh weather and limited access. Polar bear populations can only persist where temporal and spatial availability of sea ice provides adequate access to their marine mammal prey. Observed declines in sea ice availability will continue as long as greenhouse gas concentrations rise. At the same time, human intrusion and pollution levels in the Arctic are expected to increase. A circumpolar understanding of the cumulative impacts of current and future stressors is lacking, long-term trends are known from only a few subpopulations, and there is no globally coordinated effort to monitor effects of stressors. Here, we describe a framework for an integrated circumpolar monitoring plan to detect ongoing patterns, predict future trends, and identify the most vulnerable polar bear subpopulations. We recommend strategies for monitoring subpopulation abundance and trends, reproduction, survival, ecosystem change, human-caused mortality, human–bear conflict, prey availability, health, stature, distribution, behavioral change, and the effects that monitoring itself may have on polar bears. We assign monitoring intensity for each subpopulation through adaptive assessment of the quality of existing baseline data and research accessibility. A global perspective is achieved by recommending high intensity monitoring for at least one subpopulation in each of four major polar bear ecoregions. Collection of data on harvest, where it occurs, and remote sensing of habitat, should occur with the same intensity for all subpopulations. We outline how local traditional knowledge may most effectively be combined with the best scientific methods to provide comparable and complementary lines of evidence. We also outline how previously collected intensive monitoring data may be sub-sampled to guide future sampling frequencies and develop indirect estimates or indices of subpopulation status. Adoption of this framework will inform management and policy responses to changing worldwide polar bear status and trends.

Vongraven D. 2013. Circumpolar monitoring framework for polar bears. Presentation 5.1 at the International Polar Bear Forum, December 3-6, Moscow. Download pdf here; available online here: polarbearforum2013.ru/data/presentations/5_1.pdf‎

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