Tag Archives: advocacy

Amstrup’s comment on his starving polar bear article and my response

Steve Amstrup has left a comment below his January 20, 2014 “starving polar bears’ article at The Conversation, which I discussed in my last post.

I’ve copied his comment below and the response to his comment that I left this morning, which is copied below his. See the entire comment sequence here.
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New polar bear population status documents completed but have been withheld

I suggested in my last post of 2013 that the biologists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) might have learned some lessons over the last year about the folly of withholding evidence, fudging data, and trying to hide good news. However, it appears that was wishful thinking.

In the course of writing the essay on my top posts of 2013, I went to the PBSG website to check something, and blow me over with a feather, found an announcement that had been added a few weeks ago (December 16, 2013) without a whisper to the media.

The old PBSG page, “Population status” – which used to say “The total number of polar bears worldwide is estimated to be 20,000 – 25,000” – has been replace by a notice entitled “Population status reviews.

The former estimate population estimate (“20,000 – 25,000”) can no longer be found on the website and no other figure is offered.

The sidebar menu option “Status table” says “will be published soon.”

I’ve copied the short PBSG notice in its entirety below (pdf here):
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Biggest PBS stories of 2013 involved polar bear experts fudging data

The two top posts I published this year had one thing in common – they exposed polar bear researchers dodging full disclosure of scientific information in a way that outraged a lot of people. These two posts still draw a regular crowd of readers.

#1. “Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001” (published July 15, 2013) – 8,786 views as of December 30.

#2. “Ian Stirling’s latest howler: the polar bear who died of climate change” (August 7, 2013) – 7,872 views as of December 30.

[Note that #3 was the summary essay, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (February 26, 2013), at 5,491 views. Dr. Matt Ridley wrote a foreword introducing that essay (“We should be listening to Susan Crockford”) that appeared in Canada's Financial Post]

On this last day of the year, I thought I’d make an attempt to put these results into a wider perspective.

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How and why great news about Chukchi polar bears has been suppressed

A new peer-reviewed report (Rode et al. 2014 [in print] 2013, accepted), released last month (announced here), documents the fact that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea are doing better than virtually any other population studied, despite significant losses in summer sea ice over the last two decades – even though the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) said this population was declining (Obbard et al. 2010).

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

Rather than this good news being shouted far and wide, what we’ve seen so far is a mere whisper. The strategy for suppressing the information appears to have several parts: make it hard to find; don’t actively publicize it; down-play the spectacularly good nature of the news; minimize how wrong they were; keep the focus on the future.

Something similar happened with the newly-published paper on Davis Strait bears (Peacock et al. 2013, discussed here and here) but the news there wasn’t quite so shockingly different from expected. The suppression of good news stands in marked contrast to anything with a hint of bad news, which gets reported around the world — for example, Andrew Derocher and colleagues and their prepare now to save polar bears” policy paper in February, 2013.

US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr, co-investigator of the Chukchi study and co-author of the newly-published report, wrote an announcement about the paper. It wasn’t a real press release, since it was not actually sent to media outlets. It was a statement, with a brief summary of the paper, posted on a regional US Fish & Wildlife website, with no mention of lead author Karyn Rode. Not surprisingly, lack of active promotion = no media coverage.

The posted announcement also down-played how well the Chukchi bears are doing. In fact, the news documented in the paper is much better than any of them let on: Chukchi polar bears are doing better than virtually all other populations studied.

But Regehr also had to do some damage control to counter the evidence this paper contains of how wrong they had all been — not only about the Chukchi population today but about their predictions for polar bears in the future.

After all, the computer models used to predict a dire future for polar bears combined the Chukchi Sea with the Southern Beaufort, as having similar ice habitats (“ice ecoregions”). The published paper and Regehr’s statement now say these two regions are very different and that polar bear response to loss of sea ice is “complex” rather than a simple matter of less summer ice = harm to polar bears. Regehr goes on to say that polar bear scientists expected this would happen. I call total BS on this one, which I explain in full later (with a map).

Finally, Regehr’s statement emphasizes that good news for 1 subpopulation out of 19 today should not be celebrated because the overall future for polar bears — prophesied by computerized crystal balls — is bleak. Focus on the future, they say. Did they forget that for years they’ve been telling us that polar bears are already being harmed and that this foreshadows what’s to come? Now we have the results of yet another peer-reviewed study showing bears not being harmed by declines in summer ice (see the full list here).

So, in the end, all of this double-talk and contradiction is not just about suppressing this particular paper. There’s much more at stake.

The Rode et al. Chukchi paper is strong evidence that their predictions of a grim future for polar bears – based on theoretical responses to summer sea ice declines that should already be apparent – have been refuted by their own studies. It’s no wonder they want to keep the media away from this story.

Details below.  [Update September 11, 2013: another news outlet picks up the story, see Point 2 below]

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Biologists spreading misinformation: hybridization with grizzlies not due to polar bears moving inland

A paper published last week in the journal Science, written by a team of biologists and atmospheric scientists, expounds on a possible dire future for a range of Arctic animals. It’s called, “Ecological consequences of sea-ice decline” and surprisingly, polar bears are discussed only briefly.

However, with the inclusion of one short sentence, the paper manages to perpetuate misinformation on grizzly/polar bear hybridization that first appeared in a commentary essay three years ago in Nature  (Kelly et al. 2010)1. The Post et al. 2013 missive contains this astonishing statement (repeated by a Canadian Press news report):

Hybridization between polar bears and grizzly bears may be the result of increasing inland presence of polar bears as a result of a prolonged ice-free season.

Lead author of the paper, Professor of Biology Eric Post, is quoted extensively in the press release issued by his employer (Penn State University, pdf here). In it, Post re-states the above sentence in simpler terms, removing any doubt of its intended interpretation:

“… polar and grizzly bears already have been observed to have hybridized because polar bears now are spending more time on land, where they have contact with grizzlies.

Both statements are patently false. All recent hybridization events documented (2006-2013) occurred because a few male grizzlies traveled over the sea ice into polar bear territory and found themselves a polar bear female to impregnate (see news items here and here, Fig. 1 below). These events did not occur on land during the ice-free season (which is late summer/early fall), but on the sea ice in spring (March-May).

Grizzlies have been documented wandering over the sea ice of the western Arctic since at least 1885 (Doupe et al. 2007; Fig. 2, below) and the presence in this region of hybrid grizzly/polar bear offspring is not an indicator of declining summer sea ice, whether due to global warming or natural causes, or some combination thereof.

Leading polar bear specialist Ian Stirling knows this. He said as much in an interview with National Geographic News reporter John Roach when the first hybrid was shot back in 2006 (May 16, 2006), pdf here:

Stirling said grizzly bears have been showing up in the Canada’s western Arctic as far north as Banks Island and Victoria Island in the province of Nunavut (see these islands in the upper left of our Nunavut map) periodically for the past 50 years.

The hybrid, he said, is “definitely not” a sign of climate change.” [my bold]

Ian Stirling is not only a co-author on the Post et al. Science paper but he is the only polar bear specialist on the team. He may not have written this erroneous sentence; his less-experienced co-authors may have composed it. If so, he failed to correct it or insist it be removed. The responsibility for the inclusion of this blatant misrepresentation of fact in the Post et al. paper lies with Stirling, since he knows it’s not true.2

Figure 1. Sea ice extent in late spring in the western Arctic (May 23, 2013). Note that there is solid ice between the mainland and Banks and Victoria islands at this time. Some grizzly males emerge from their winter dens long before grizzly females and go wandering in search of food and potential mates: they can find both out on the sea ice beyond the coastline. See Fig. 2 for a history of grizzly excursions onto the sea ice and the Arctic islands, which have taken then even further north than Victoria Island. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent in late spring in the western Arctic (May 23, 2013). Note that there is solid ice between the mainland and Banks and Victoria islands at this time. Some grizzly males emerge from their winter dens long before grizzly females and go wandering in search of food and potential mates: they can find both out on the sea ice. See Fig. 2 for a history of grizzly excursions onto the sea ice and the western Arctic islands, which have taken then even further north than Victoria Island. Click to enlarge.

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Cannibalism update and insight on the timing of media hype

In my last post, I went over some of the spin and misrepresentation of fact contained in the claim by leading polar bear biologists Steven Amstrup, Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (Amstrup et al. 2006; Stirling and Derocher 2012) that cannibalism is on the increase because of the effects of global warming on Arctic sea ice.

I’ve had an opportunity to follow up on three points that puzzled me. Three relate to the Amstrup et al. paper that described three cases of cannibalism in the southeastern Beaufort Sea in 2004 and one to the incidents in western Hudson Bay in 2009. In the process, I found at least three more misrepresentations of fact and gained some insight on why these incidents of cannibalism were hyped so enthusiastically when they were. Continue reading

Collapse of polar bear snow dens – Stirling and Derocher’s anecdotal evidence

In their summary of facts supposedly supporting the premise that global warming is already having an impact on polar bear populations (discussed previously here, here, and here), biologists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (2012:2700) include a list of incidents of warm winter weather and/or “rain on snow events” that have led to the collapse of polar bear maternity dens and ringed seal birthing lairs.

Stirling and Derocher state that both polar bears and ringed seals (their primary prey) have a demonstrated

high vulnerability …to increased mortatily resulting from warm temperatures and rain. Such rain on snow events are predicted to increase as the climate warms in the Arctic (Hansen et al. 2011).”[my bold]

However, their so-called evidence for polar bears and ringed seals having a proven vulnerability to these events comes not from scientific studies but what they admit outright are anecdotal reports.

They describe four incidents, including one case of a maternity den collapse (involving a 6 yr old, probably first-time mother and two, 3-4 week old cubs) in the southern Beaufort in 1989, apparently caused by a bit of warm weather followed by heavy snow in late January (a picture of the dead bear is included, see below, just so we don’t forget that a bear died).

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Polar bear spin reaches epic proportions at Bangkok CITES meeting

As I mentioned here in an update to my March 7th post, Damian Carrington at the Guardian Environment blog had this telling quote about the CITES deliberations that took place prior to the vote to ban polar bear trade (by uplisting its status from Appendix II to Appendix I):

As the debate raged, national delegates from other countries got confused by the strident but conflicting claims. “Where is the truth? Is it true that the polar bear is declining. Is it true that trade is increasing? We need to know,” said the Egyptian delegate.[my bold]

Indeed. Was there “truth” in the presentations heard by delegates? By that I mean, honest presentations of facts so that delegates could make up their own minds, or facts loaded with spin to sway the decision one way or another? I wasn’t there so I can’t say. But we can get some impression of what might have been said from two press releases statements issued after the vote failed by two parties that were actively promoting acceptance of the US-led proposal.[Update: Humane Society Press Release is here] Continue reading

Where were the appeals to feed starving polar bears in 1974?

The so-called “policy paper” that polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher has been promoting over the last few weeks, which I commented on briefly when the press release came out, is still grabbing headlines. Online news outlets continue to run stories on this bizarre discussion of what officials might decide to do 40 years from now if global warming causes Western Hudson Bay polar bears to spend 6 months on land (Molnar et al. 2010), causing some of those polar bears to starve (see here, here, and here) – as if this is something likely to happen within the next couple of years.

But forget imagined future starvation: where was the media attention on the plight of starving polar bears back in 1974  and 1975 when polar bears were actually starving in large numbers in the eastern Beaufort Sea?

At least two of the co-authors of the paper getting all the attention – Drs. Ian Stirling and Nick Lunn – witnessed polar bears starving in the Beaufort in 1974 because of an especially cold winter and said nothing even though polar bear populations worldwide at the time were already low due to the wanton slaughter of previous decades. Did Stirling and Lunn humanely euthanize the bears they saw starving? Contact the media? [If they did, I’d like to know.] Appeal to governments to make a plan in case it happened again? Apparently not, because it did happen again, at least twice in the following two decades – with no attendant hue and cry then either. No, those Beaufort Sea bears starved to death, time and time again, without a word to the media from Ian Stirling and Nick Lunn.
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Misleading “State of the Polar Bear” graphic cost advocate scientists more than US$50,000

UPDATE FEBRUARY 19, 2014The misleading “State of the Polar Bear” graphic is now GONE (as of January 31, 2014). A new 2013 status table is offered by the PBSG here. It has detailed text explanations and harvest information, with references, hyperlinked to each subpopulation entry (“Press the subpopulation hyperlink and more information will appear“) and may have replaced the “State of the Polar Bear” graphic that the PBSG commissioned for upwards of US$50,000, although the PBSG website says it is being “updated [A pdf copy of the 2013 colour table is here, and my commentary on it is here.] I have left the original post as is, below.

I’ve had some time to do a little digging regarding the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) State of the Polar Bear web graphic. It turns out this fancy but misleading document was designed by a US company called Periscopic (Portland, Oregon) at a cost of US$50, 000-70,000. So apparently, rather than put $70,000 towards much-needed polar bear research, the PBSG chose to use the money to tell people, in a slightly different way, that it thinks polar bears are doomed. [see UPDATE: April 1 2013]

Just to refresh your memory, last month I pointed out that this fancy summary “tool,” which sits prominently on the home page of the PBSG website, suggests that there are now 22,600-32,000 polar bears worldwide, when tallied by nation (when you add up the individual population estimates provided on each of the two maps on this web “tool” (without clicking through to more detail), you get two different numbers that have no resemblance to the “official” estimate of 20,000-25,000: the page “Nations” gives totals by country that add up to 22,600-32,000 and the numbers given on the “Subpopulations” page (when you hover your mouse over each of the 19 regions) add up to only 13,036 – a far cry from 20,000-25,000 official estimate).

A few days later, I got a response to the email I’d sent to Norwegian polar bear biologist Dag Vongraven, who said it was his job to supervise work on this summary. But, he said, he had “not yet had time to review all details in it as well as I should.” So it seems that without a careful review of the final product, the graphic was posted on the home page of the PBSG website (sometime in October 2012).

It turns out there had been a discussion at the 2009 PBSG meeting, documented in its official report (Obbard et al. 2010:11, Fig. 1 below), about their intention to hire Periscopic as part of on-going PBSG website developments supervised by Vongraven. Several PBSG members agreed this would be a good idea and offered to help by providing data. Continue reading