Category Archives: Conservation Status

University newspaper misleads readers on status of Western Hudson Bay polar bears

Even though polar bear experts admit there has been no trend in sea ice breakup or freeze-up dates since 2001 – and both Canadian and International experts say this subpopulation is stable – the public is still being misled about the status and condition of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay.

WHB status 2015 IUCN PBSG_PolarBearScience

The latest example of misinformation about Western Hudson Bay polar bears appears in a feature story carried by the campus newspaper of York University (Ontario, Canada), meant to highlight the work of biology graduate student Luana Sciullo.1
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Designated critical habitat for Alaskan polar bears offers no protection from thick spring ice deaths

The Obama administration is apparently attempting to overturn a previous ruling that rejected proposed Alaskan “critical habitat” for polar bears in 2013 – as if “critical habitat” would protect the bears from the repeated episodes of thick spring ice that develop in this region every 10 years or so.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

According to a Reuters report today (5 May 2015):

Seeking to reverse a ruling throwing out its designation of critical habitat for polar bears, the Obama administration has defended its decision to list large swathes of the Arctic as necessary for the conservation of the threatened species.

A coalition of oil industry groups and Alaska Natives, represented by Stoel Rives and Holland & Hart, successfully persuaded the U.S. District Court for Alaska to vacate the government’s polar bear habitat designation in 2013.” [my bold]

If they succeed, it would put most of the north coast of Alaska under special ESA rules, as the map below shows (click to enlarge).

Critical habitat Polar Bears US_NorthSlopeOrg map_labeled_PolarBearScience

As I commented previously, regarding the Obama administration’s recommendation to congress that they approve a proposed Arctic wildlife refuge area on Alaska’s North Slope, this move (if implemented) would not protect polar bears from the starvation deaths due to thick spring ice conditions that have occurred in this region for 2-3 years out of every 10 since 1960 at least.

The other issue is how much additional, biologically meaningful protection a critical habitat designation would provide for Southern Beaufort and Chukchi Sea polar bears – over and above that already provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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Arctic sea ice extent total for March does not equal global polar bear habitat

Only half or less of the estimated 2.6% loss per decade of March sea ice extent since 1979 (Fig. 1, below) represents a decline in polar habitat. That’s because several regions with sea ice that are not home to polar bears, like the Sea of Okhotsk, are included in Arctic sea ice totals.

Figure 1. Average monthly Arctic sea ice extent for March 1979-2015, which includes ice in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, a decline of 2.6% per decade. NSIDC, March summary 2015.

Figure 1. Average monthly Arctic sea ice extent for March 1979-2015 (which includes ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and the Baltic, where polar bears do not live), shows a decline of 2.6% per decade. NSIDC, March summary 2015.

Both the Sea of Okhotsk and northern Sea of Japan (Fig. 2) have sea ice in winter (which is included in total Arctic sea ice records) but they are not truly “Arctic” – neither is connected to the Arctic by continuous ice, even when the ice is at its maximum extent (nor is the Baltic Sea — in contrast to Hudson Bay and the east coast of North America, which are connected to the Arctic by continuous ice).

Sea of Okhotsk_1979 March marked_PolarBearScience

Figure 2. Location of the Sea of Okhotsk and Sea of Japan. Insert ice map for March 1979 from NSIDC shows it’s position relative to the Arctic proper.

That lack of connection to Arctic pack ice is probably the main reason that polar bears never colonized the Sea of Okhotsk, even though western Arctic seal species (ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon) and Arctic whales  (bowhead and beluga) live there. Polar bears don’t currently live in the Sea of Okhotsk and all evidence suggests they never have.

Sea ice maps show that about half of the total ice extent difference between March 1979 and March 2015 was due to a relatively large decline in sea ice cover for Sea of Okhotsk and northern Sea of Japan — regions without polar bears. Surely no reputable scientist or journalist would suggest that the “record low” maximum ice extent for 2015 has any relevance for polar bear health and survival? [or for Northwest Passage travel, for that matter] Sadly, they would.

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Polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods – new paper misses the point

A new paper by polar bear biologists (Rode et al. 2015) argues that terrestrial (land-based) foods are not important to polar bears now and will not be in the future – a conclusion I totally agree with – but they miss the point entirely regarding the importance of this issue.

Fat bears on land in the Southern Beaufort, Sue Miller photo, well-prepared for a brief summer fast.

Whatever food polar bears consume in the summer – whether they are on land or on the ice – doesn’t really matter. What matters is how many fat-rich seals they can consume between March and June each year. The fat put on in late winter/spring from gorging on baby seals carries polar bears over the summer, no matter where they spend it.

USGS polar bear biologist Karyn Rode and colleagues (press release here) have tried to frame this issue as one about future survival of polar bears in the face of declining sea ice. However, the fact that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea and Southern Davis Strait are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice (aka an extended open-water season), proves my point and disproves their premise. Bears in these regions are doing extremely well – contrary to all predictions – because they have had abundant baby seals to eat during the spring (see here and here).

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US biologists used same flawed models for listing walrus and polar bears as ‘threatened’

More bad science: US biologists successfully used a scientifically flawed model to get polar bears listed as ‘threatened’ and thus emboldened, went on to do the same for walrus.

Walruses_USFWS photo_030515_March 2015

The intricate US Geological Survey model of ‘expert opinion’ that was used to support the listing of polar bears as ‘threatened’ under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been soundly rejected by the world’s leading conservation organization, the IUCN,1 which has has tightened its rules for using “future conditions” (e.g., effects of global warming) in generating Red List assessments. That IUCN condemnation means the USGS model was never “the best available science” for evaluating the status of polar bears  ̶  it was (and still is) substandard, inadequate science that makes a mockery of serious conservation efforts.

However, not only has this flawed model continued to be used by the USGS for polar bears, it has also been used to assess the conservation status of Pacific walrus, which are now officially “candidates” for being listed as ‘threatened’ (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2011).2

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Supporting document for Canada’s polar bear status maps reveal surprises

My request to Environment Canada in early December 2014 for the documents supporting their polar bear status maps has finally generated results.

In an email dated 2 March 2015, I received the document produced by the EC Polar Bear Technical Committee (PBTC). I waited to see if it would be appended to the webpage where the maps were posted last year (reported here and here). However, as of today, that has not happened, so I am posting it here. There are some rather striking differences that may surprise you.

UPDATE 22 March 2015: A copy of the letter from the Director General of the Canadian Wildlife Service that accompanied the document below, which I forgot to include, is here. It states that the once a new status table has been compiled (provided below), “it is reviewed by the Polar Bear Administrative Committee and then becomes a public document.” The implication is that the reviewed document has not yet been produced.
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IUCN Specialist Group quietly adds “sea ice changes” to their polar bear status table

In late January, the IUCN PBSG made significant changes to its polar bear status table but did not think it was worth bringing to the public’s attention via a tweet, press release or note on their web site’s home page.

Hudson Bay female with cub_Wapusk_Thorsten Milse_Gov CA

What changes? Well, while the group did not see fit to agree with all of Environment Canada’s assessments (e.g. listing Davis Strait bears as “likely increasing” compared to the PBSG’s “stable”, see full list here), it did upgrade their status of Western Hudson Bay bears to ‘stable’ (which EC did back in June 2014).

More significantly, however, they also added two metrics of sea ice change to their assessment table, presumably because alongside ‘human-caused removals’ (which they also track in their tables)1, sea ice changes are supposedly critical ‘threats’ to polar bear health and survival.

So critical, in fact, that they’ve only just now gotten around to measuring it consistently across polar bear territory. Funny thing is, they cite no document that shows the sea ice change calculations for each subpopulation region, nor who generated them.

Let me be clear: no one has ever generated such a sea ice metric before – it is a unique PBSG construct that you will find nowhere else. By providing no documentation that lays out the calculations for inspection, the PBSG are simply insisting the public accept their unpublished, non-peer-reviewed work on faith. Details below.
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