Category Archives: Conservation Status

IUCN Red Book officials forced scientific standards on polar bear predictive models

As I reported Thursday, the IUCN announcement of a new Red List assessment for polar bear got the usual overwrought attention from international media outlets. However, not one of these contained a quote from a polar bear biologist.


Steven Amstrup, science spokesperson for activist conservation organization Polar Bears International, has so far had nothing to say to the media. Yet, Amstrup was a co-author of the IUCN Red List report. Not until late in the day following the release of the report did his his organization’s website post a short, bland news report (“Climate Change Still Primary Threat to Polar Bears”).

Similarly, Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher, Nicholas Lunn (also a co-author of the IUCN Red List report), and former WWF employee Geoff York – who are usual go-to guys for polar-bears-are-all-going-to-die media frenzies – have so far been silent and invisible on this issue.

In addition, while the IUCN press release [backup here: 2015 IUCN Red List press release_Nov 19 2015] included a quote from IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) chairman Dag Vongraven, as of this morning (21 November, PST), the website of the PBSG contains no mention of this decision – no item in the “News” category  and, more importantly, no update of the status table  or global estimates to reflect the changes contained in the report  (even though they obviously knew it was coming months ago: the report was submitted to the IUCN Red List 27 August 2015).

In my opinion, this silence says it all: polar bear specialists know this assessment is a severe de facto critique of their 2008 assessment (as well as Amstrup’s predictive models) and it’s a big step backwards for their conservation activism. I expect they are silent because they are royally pissed off.

However, this assessment is good news because finally, some standards of scientific rigor have been applied to polar bear predictive models – even though the PBSG were still been allowed to pretend that summer sea ice coverage is critical to polar bear health and survival (Crockford 2015).  Continue reading

Only a 70% chance that polar bear numbers will decline by 30% by 2050

Despite the stupendously unwarranted hype being generated out of the recent release of the 2015 update to the IUCN Red List status assessment for polar bears, in fact the prognosis is better than it has been for years.

That’s because polar bear experts have been forced by the IUCN standards committee to acknowledge the great deal of uncertainty in their predictive models. They now admit there is only a 70% chance that number will decline by 30% over the next 35 years: only slightly higher than a 50:50 chance.

That means there is a 30% chance that the numbers WILL NOT decline by 30% over the next 35 years. See my detailed analysis, where you will find copies of the report and links to the online IUCN Red List assessment.

That has not stopped all major news outlets from treating this report as a new pronouncement of gloom:

CBC, Canada: (“Polar bear numbers to fall as Arctic ice shrinks: study
Population will decline by more than 30% over next 35 to 40 years, experts say”). Except the first sentence admits this is merely “likely”, not “will”:

“Polar bear populations are likely to fall by more than 30 per cent by around mid-century as global warming thaws Arctic sea ice, experts said on Thursday in the most detailed review of the predators to date.”

Mirror UK: “Polar bears facing extinction as numbers ‘to fall by a third over next 40 years’: There is now a high probability numbers of the species will decline by more than 30%, experts claim”

Express UK: “Nearly 8,000 polar bears to ‘DIE OUT’ as vulnerable giants hurtle towards ‘obliteration’: POLAR bears face a “decimation” in the next couple of decades with more than 30 per cent in population set for complete wipe-out in the most terrifying warning yet.”

The Guardian UK: ” Climate change is ‘single biggest threat’ to polar bear survival: ‘High probability’ of a 30% decline in polar bear numbers by 2050 due to retreating sea ice, IUCN study finds”

[Except, as I noted in my previous post, the IUCN report did not evaluate extinction risk].


IUCN Red List says global polar bear population is 20,000 – 31,000 (26,500)

The long-awaited 2015 IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears was released today (Wiig et al. 2015) and it includes some rather astonishing details − including the fact that the population trend is unknown.

polar_bear_usfws_no date_sm

1) It confirms the global population size I published in May 2015 (20,129-32,558; average 26,344). See the graph below, now amended to reflect this point. If global numbers do decline over the next 35 years, it will be from a high point not previously acknowledged by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

Crockford OFFICIAL polar bear numbers to 2015_IUCN concurrs Nov 18

2) The current population trend is listed as: ? Unknown. [NOT declining – if anyone claims it is, send them here: IUCN Red List U. maritimus]

3) It puts the generation time for polar bears at 11.5 years (range 9.8-13.6), a huge drop from the 15 years used in previous predictive models. This change makes a big difference to the model results: three generations (the minimum period needed to show a trend) are now 35 years rather than 45 years.

4) It states there is a 70% chance of a 30% decline in polar bear numbers by 2050 and a 7% probability of a reduction > 50% if sea ice declines as predicted, but noted the large amount of uncertainty in these projections. That means there is a greater chance that numbers will not decline by 30% in the next 35 years (a 30% chance) than that the numbers will decline by 50% or more by 2050. That sounds like good news to me.

5) It will continue to list polar bears as Vulnerable. PBSG biologists managed to prevent polar bears from being listed as Least Concern or perhaps Near Threatened. But they had to give up a lot to get it.

6) The report supplement (Wiig et al. 2015 supppl.) explained why they did not calculate extinction probabilities and extinction is not mentioned at all on the IUCN Red List polar bear assessment page. This assessment only considers the probabilities of a decline in population size by 2050.

Yet, a spokesperson for the IUCN apparently stated (The Guardian, Climate change is ‘single biggest threat’ to polar bear survival; 19 November 2015 ) that:

“There is a high risk of extinction and the threat is serious,” said Dena Cator of the IUCN’s species survival commission. “You could consider polar bears to be a canary in the coal mine. They are an iconic and beautiful species that is extremely important to indigenous communities. But changes to their sea ice habitat are already being seen as a result of climate change.”

Apparently Dena Cator does not expect that people will read the report or find the assessment page on the IUCN Red List website – or she’s giving her personal opinion rather than explaining the report results. More on the points above and links to the report supplement pdf below, with quotes.
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Specialists mum on low Chukchi Sea polar bear habitat this summer and fall

You may or may not have noticed that even though Chukchi Sea ice coverage has been way below average this melt season, there has been no hue-and-cry about poor suffering Chukchi polar bears. That’s because polar bear biologist’s own research has shown that the health and survival of these bears has not been negatively impacted by low summer sea ice. There may be threats from poaching in Russia, but not lack of summer sea ice.

Chukchi vs Beaufort ice at 29 Oct 2015_polarbearscience

As of this date, developing sea ice is only just approaching Wrangel Island, a major polar bear denning region in the Chukchi Sea, see maps below (Ovsyanikov 2006).

Yet, polar bear specialists insist that neighbouring Beaufort Sea bears – who endure a much shorter open-water season – are in peril of extinction because of scarce summer sea ice.
Continue reading

Who tagged the Beaufort Sea polar bear with the tight collar?

I’ve updated my post from last week to reflect that an inquiry to USGS has generated a statement that the Beaufort Sea polar bear reported by CBC last week is NOT one of their bears. Apparently University of Alberta researchers were also tagging polar bears in the region.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

See details in the updated post here.

Kaktovik, where the bear was photographed, is not too far from the Canadian border of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation, see USGS tracking map below.

Original caption: "Movements of 3 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of October, 2015. Polar bears were tagged in 2014 and 2015 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 3 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with AMSR2 remotely-sensed ice coverage for 31 October, 2015." Click to enlarge.

Original caption: “Movements of 3 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of October, 2015. Polar bears were tagged in 2014 and 2015 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 3 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with AMSR2 remotely-sensed ice coverage for 31 October, 2015.” Click to enlarge.

How long is it going to take for the people responsible to own up to this situation – and more importantly, remove the tight collar from the bear?

Discovery News spreads old misinformation about W. Hudson Bay polar bears

In a just-released Discovery News piece, Kieran Mulvaney (4 November 2015, “In the polar bear capital, an uncertain future) repeated three misleading statements about Western Hudson Bay polar bears that keep making the rounds, despite the fact they have been laid to rest by the latest scientific reports on  (Lunn et al. 2013, 2014; Stapleton et al. 2014). I reviewed these just a few weeks ago.

Western Hudson Bay bear, Wakusp National Park, August 2011.

Western Hudson Bay bear, Wakusp National Park, August 2011.

1) “Climate change is causing the bay’s ice to melt earlier and freeze later, causing bears to spend longer a shore.”

Not true. Lunn and colleagues stated explicitly that there has been no trend in either break up or freeze-up of WHB sea ice since 2001. Although there has been large variability in dates, that lack of trend that has continued to this year.

2 & 3) “As a consequence, Churchill’s polar bears are decreasing in number (from approximately 1,350 three decades ago to roughly 900-1,000 now) and in physical condition.”

This deliberately misleading statement avoids the fact that the latest surveys found roughly the same number of bears in 2011 as in 2004 (the estimate used by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group for WHB is 1030) when different counting methods were taken into account. The ~900 bear estimate came from the mark-recapture survey, which left out a portion of the range that the aerial survey covered, hence the official estimate of 1030.

In addition, there has been no scientific assessment of body condition or cub survival since before the last population estimate in 2004 – polar bear “experts” keep telling journalists there are declines but have yet to produce any data to support those claims. The latest surveys did not collect data on body condition or cub survival.

Mulvaney’s misinformation is almost certainly the result of spending time in Churchill with activist Polar Bears International spokesperson Steve Amstrup and activist climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe doing webcasts (e.g. “Challenges of communicating climate change”).  

Mulvaney is clearly not a journalist or a science writer: if he was, he would do some research of his own and stop believing as gospel every word that activist scientists feed him. They are using him as a mouth-piece and sadly, Discovery News is buying it all and presenting it as science.

[Hayhoe, by the way, blocked me on twitter earlier this morning for making one observational comment, my first-ever to her account, in response to a conversation about polar bear population numbers. This is what I said that Hayhoe does not want her followers to know:

“Stop wanton slaughter, #’s go up, works for all species. S Beaufort #polarbear #s dipped due to thick spring #seaice”

Both statements are true and supported by scientific literature. But Hayhoe is all about “climate communication” which appears not to allow science to intrude.]

Lunn, N.J., Regehr, E.V., Servanty, S., Converse, S., Richardson, E. and Stirling, I. 2013. Demography and population assessment of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay, Canada. Environment Canada Research Report. 26 November 2013. PDF HERE

Lunn, N.J., Servanty, S., Regehr, E.V., Converse, S.J., Richardson, E. and Stirling, I. 2014. Demography and population assessment of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay, Canada. Environment Canada Research Report. July 2014. PDF HERE [This appears to be the version submitted for publication]

Stapleton S., Atkinson, S., Hedman, D., and Garshelis, D. 2014. Revisiting Western Hudson Bay: using aerial surveys to update polar bear abundance in a sentinel population. Biological Conservation 170:38-47.

Sickening effect of satellite radio collars polar bear researchers don’t want you to see

A report at CBC News (Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar,” Martin Zeilig, 28 October 2015) shows the bloodied neck of a male Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear, taken near Kaktovik, Alaska, whose radio collar is too tight.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Researchers should not be putting collars on young animals and male bears – they know the problems! Who did the USGS have working for them that did not know this or couldn’t tell a male bear from a female? [see below] The other question is: how many more bears are in the same condition but out of sight on the sea ice – or dead due to their injuries? Don’t forget, this is a population that researchers claim is endangered because of climate change but which really declined recently due to thick spring ice in 2004-2006. [SJC – ambiguity fixed]

UPDATE 28 October 2015: 5:41 pm – in a comment under the CBC story, Churchill polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson wrote (“4 hours ago”):

“This isn’t a he, it’s a she. Saw this bear during our trip, its a female with one cub.

Male polar bears are not radio collared.”

The statement in the CBC article that the bear with the collar is a male thus seems to be an error.  That makes more sense but does not negate the suffering of the animal.

UPDATE 5 November 2015: 8:30 am – I just received an email from a reader who contacted USGS about this bear and with their permission, I have copied the response below (leaving out the USGS contact person’s details), my bold:

Hello xxxx,

I do not believe USGS banded the bear. I have talked with staff at the USGS Alaska Science Center and found that the polar bear in the news was an adult male. The USGS scientists will band female polar bears, but not male bears. If you have questions, see this site. there is a link to the staff on the left. Click it and you will see a list with the project manager at the top.

It may be that USGS is accepting the word of one of the experts quoted in the story [Vince Crichton] that the bear is a male and have denounced their involvement on that basis. Obviously, other polar bear researchers must be working in the area, and Geoff York statements (below) suggest a crew from University of Alberta, led by Andrew Derocher.  But if Kelsey Eliasson is right that this is a female with a cub (see above update), it may indeed be a USGS bear, perhaps one who’s collar has stopped transmitting. The plot thickens.
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