Category Archives: Life History

Journalists still pushing the “polar bears eat snow geese story,” as if it matters

I wrote about this issue in January (January – and journalists are still pushing it).

Courtesy NY Times, Sept. 22 2014.

Figure 1. Courtesy NY Times, Sept. 22 2014. Click to enlarge.

This month, the New York Times (September 22, 2014 James Gorman, “For Polar Bears, a Climate Change Twist”) is pushing it big-time (and so it’s been picked up elsewhere, like by the Anchorage Daily News).

Myths and misinformation about this phenomenon dispelled below.
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Ian Stirling now says the polar bear that “died of climate change” last year was “in his prime”

With Barents Sea ice way above average this summer, Polar Bear Specialist Group biologist Ian Stirling now claims the old polar bear that he said died of climate change last year on Svalbard was “in his prime” and still blames the bear’s death on lack of sea ice — despite all evidence to the contrary.

UPDATE Sept. 19, 2014 typo fixed in Fig. 1 caption [sea ice low for 2012 was 3.41 m2km, not 4.1, see here.]

Figure 1. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says the September minimum for 2014 is “imminent” and suggests the low may come in at 5.1 million square kilometers (far short of the 4.1 m2km low reached in 2012. About the much larger than average amount of ice around Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, they said only: “As was the case for the beginning of the month, extent remains below average in all sectors of the Arctic except for a region in the Barents Sea, east of Svalbard.”

Figure 1. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says the September minimum for 2014 is “imminent” and suggests the low may come in at 5.1 million square kilometers (far short of the 4.1 3.41 m2km low reached in 2012. About the much larger than average amount of ice around Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, they said only: “As was the case for the beginning of the month, extent remains below average in all sectors of the Arctic except for a region in the Barents Sea, east of Svalbard.”

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Summer sea ice melt and polar bear maternity dens

The yearly sea ice minimum extent is almost upon us, which has recently been the seasonal signal for excitable biologists and their activist groupies to resume their breathless rants about what sea ice loss could mean for polar bears.

Polar bear den_CreditUSFWS_labeled

Never mind that the summer minimum extent reached in September, no matter how low it goes, is pretty much irrelevant to polar bear health and survival. As I’ve discussed before, what’s really important is the presence of not-too-thick ice during the spring, so they can catch lots of young seals and put on lots of fat.

But to a lesser degree, the extent at mid-to-late summer is important because this is when pregnant females that prefer to make their maternity dens on shore are looking for good places to spend the winter.

So the topic for today is this: how much does the extent of ice at the height of summer dictate where polar bear females make their winter dens?
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Bearded seals in Alaska face no serious threat of reduction, let alone extinction, judge rules

Here’s a significant turn of events involving a story I reported on earlier: a US District Court judge ruled on Friday 25 July 2014 that the Bering/Chukchi Sea population of bearded seal (Erignatha barbatus) was improperly given ‘threatened’ species status in 2012. Judge Beistline ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to correct deficiencies in its study of the population.

Bearded seals are important secondary prey species for polar bears in some regions of the Arctic (Thiemann et al. 2008), after ringed seals (which were also listed as ‘threatened’ in 2012).

beardedseal-mspindler-usfws

Among other points made in his written decision, the judge is quoted as saying (reported here):

“A listing under the ESA based upon speculation, that provides no additional action intended to preserve the continued existence of the listed species, is inherently arbitrary and capricious.” [my emphasis]

Arbitrary and capricious — now that’s a slap-down. He also reportedly called the ESA listing “an abuse of discretion.”

The question is, how often have other ESA listings – not challenged in court – been based on similarly arbitrary and capricious decisions that also involved an abuse of discretion?

More quotes from Judge Beistline’s decision, and reaction to it, below.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: June 2014 map

Here is the June 2014 follow-up to my post on the July 2013 track map for female polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – “Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice.”

See that post for methods and other background on this topic, and some track maps from 2012 (also available at the USGS website here).

The USGS track map for June 2004 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Compare this to May’s map (Fig. 2) – the 20 bears from last month are down to 14, and all seven of the bears outfitted with glue-on satellite transmitters in April [either males or subadult animals] have either moved out of the area or their tags have fallen off or stopped transmitting. This means that all of the bears shown on the June map below are females with satellite radio collars.
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Barents Sea polar bear cubs – new data for 2014 made to sound ominous

Last week, Damian Carrington (May 28, 2014) at The Guardian offered a scary-sounding polar bear story, based on the work of Jon Aars and colleagues from the Norwegian Polar Institute (Fewer polar bear cubs are being born in the Arctic islands, survey finds). As often is the case however, once you see the scientific data, you will sleep better.

[Dr Aars also gave a radio interview with CBC Canada (May 29): "Is climate change the cause of lower polar bear birth rates in Norway?"; audio available]

[Update June 24, 2014 — see below]

Female polar bear with cubs. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/AP)

Female polar bear with cubs. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – more bears added to the April 2014 map

Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Seventeen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 7 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters” say the folks at the USGS Alaska Science Center.

I guess that’s why the April map was late getting posted.

Polar bear ear tag_USFWS_PolarBearNews2010

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