Tag Archives: Derocher

Guest Post: Invasive Research is Alive and Well in Canada

This is a guest post by Kelsey Eliasson, who blogs at Polarbearalley, with his thoughts on the issue of the invasive research involved in polar bear mark-recapture studies around Churchill, Manitoba — which, as you’ll see, is a far different situation than I described for Nunavut (previous posts here, here, and here on this topic. Map below to get you oriented).

Kelsey is a writer, artist and polar bear guide who has spent 14 bear seasons watching the polar bears of Churchill. For five years, he ran Churchill’s monthly newspaper published occasionally, the Hudson Bay Post. Currently, he divides his year between the Yukon, Churchill and, occasionally, Riverton, home of Manitoba’s largest moose statue.

Churchill is in the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation, governed by the Province of Manitoba, while the community of Arviat, also in 'Western Hudson Bay' is overseen by the Government of Nunavut.

Churchill lies in the Western Hudson Bay (WHB) polar bear subpopulation, governed by the Province of Manitoba, while the community of Arviat, also in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation, is overseen by the Government of Nunavut – different governments, different rules – as Kelsey points out below.

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Invasive Research is Alive and Well in Canada, by Kelsey Eliasson

The recent post about Foxe Basin was of particular interest to me, as I have been following the growing gap between the north and science for some time now. The stance taken by the Inuit is viewed as an inspiration by the guides over here in Churchill. For many years, we have tried to voice our deep concerns over the levels of handling and drugging that our bears (the Western Hudson Bay population) are subjected to on an annual basis.

This time last year, I tried to raise the topic for discussion after Andrew Derocher announced that ‘everything was on the table’ including feeding bears. At that time, the top polar bear researchers had sat down to discuss options for saving bears – except reducing handling and research – i.e. chasing bears down by helicopter and then shooting them with tranquilizers. Continue reading

Foxe Basin aerial survey a watershed moment for polar bear research, Part 2

As I outlined earlier this week, Canadian Inuit objected so strenuously to routine mark-recapture methods used by polar bear biologists during the early days of a Foxe Basin population study in 2008 that the work was abandoned and an aerial survey done instead.

In this post, I’ll examine how the polar bear biologists involved reacted to that crisis, which they called a “control of research” issue.

In a published version of a conference paper, co-authored by two of the original investigators of the Foxe Basin mark-recapture study, Lily Peacock and Andrew Derocher (Peacock et al. 2011:374), had this to say:

Control of research is a developing source of conflict. In recent years, some permits for management-oriented research on polar bears were denied by the Government of Nunavut, local hunting and trapping organizations in the Northwest Territories, and by Makivik Corporation in Quebec. Furthermore, in a 2009 resolution, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami opposed the capture of polar bears throughout Canada (available by request from http://www.itk.ca), even though the application of physical marks is one of the most effective methods of population estimation. Co-management is particularly difficult in Nunavut because of the large number of subpopulations (12), which makes it difficult to fund and conduct research.” [my bold]

They raised an interesting point – since the Government of Nunavut has the power to insist biologists do more than reiterate that their way of counting bears is the only acceptable way, and because the government can deny permits to projects that don’t measure up, it can lock out traditional polar bear research for virtually all of Canada (the vast majority of Canada’s 13 subpopulations are in Nunavut, see Fig. 1), especially since aboriginal organizations in the Northwest Territories and Quebec have followed Nunavut’s lead.

Figure 1. Territory covered by the Government of Nunavut (top, Wikipedia) and the 13 polar bear subpopulations in Canada (bottom, Environment Canada).

Figure 1. Territory covered by the Government of Nunavut (top, Wikipedia) and the 13 polar bear subpopulations in Canada (bottom, Environment Canada).

That means if polar bear researchers can’t find a way to make their research mesh with Inuit concerns, they’ll be out of work in Canada. Let’s take a look at their approach and see how well it worked for them — explaining in part the new prominence of aerial surveys for population assessments. Continue reading

Foxe Basin aerial survey – a watershed moment for polar bear research, Part 1

While researching the population status of Foxe Basin polar bears I came across an issue that seems to have garnered relatively little attention outside the polar bear community – Inuit objections to the handling of polar bears during mark-recapture surveys and the effect of this on polar bear research in Canada.

 Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.


Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.

Foxe Basin is a large polar bear subpopulation region that encompasses the northern portion Hudson Bay into the area west of Baffin Island, see map below (courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group).

FoxeBasin_PBSG website_Oct 2013Mark-recapture research methods routinely used by polar bear biologists became especially contentious in Foxe Basin during a population study initiated in 2007/2008, with Inuit residents voicing objections and biologists defending its practice. The following year, the mark-recapture effort was halted and an aerial survey took its place.

The aerial survey has been completed and a report on it was released in 2012 (Stapleton et al. 2012; see previous post for results) but we’ve heard very little about what happened to that mark-recapture study and why the Government of Nunavut pulled the plug on it. I plan to change that with the next couple of posts.

I’m not claiming to understand the nuances of the story because I’m only going by available documents. However, I think it’s important to shine some light on this issue since it has clearly changed the shape of polar bear research in Canada.
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Churchill polar bears eat more caribou and geese now than in 1968 because there are more caribou and geese, new research reveals

The press release (pdf here) issued by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) a few days ago, regarding several recent papers on polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods around Churchill, Manitoba (Western Hudson Bay), left a lot to be desired in terms of relaying accurate information.

Recent research on polar bear diets by Robert Rockwell and Linda Gormezano, it says, suggests that an increase in the consumption of caribou and snow geese since 1968 is a sign that the polar bears are nutritionally stressed due to recent sea ice changes in spring (blamed on global warming) but may be adapting by changing their summer/fall diet.

As the AMNH press release puts it:

polar bears in the warming Arctic are turning to alternate food sources.”

Figure 1. Polar bear feeding on a caribou carcass, taken July 26, 2010. This photo was included in one of the papers cited in the January 2014 press release (Gormezano and Rockwell 2013:3518) and was clearly taken from the air. The caption in the paper says simply, “a polar bear looks up from the recently killed caribou it was eating,” so the bear may not have killed the caribou – some other predator (wolf or grizzly) may have made the actual kill. The dark spots on the bear appear to be flies. Credit Copyright American Museum of Natural History/ R. Rockwell.

Figure 1. Polar bear feeding on a caribou carcass, taken July 26, 2010, from the air. This photo was included in virtually all media reports and in Gormezano and Rockwell (2013a:3518, Fig. 3). The caption in the paper says, “a polar bear looks up from the recently killed caribou it was eating,” implying the bear may not have actually killed the caribou – some other predator (wolf or grizzly) may have made the kill. The dark spots on the bear appear to be flies. Credit: Copyright American Museum of Natural History/R. Rockwell.

However, the AMNH press release fails to mention – as the papers it publicizes certainly do – that Western Hudson Bay populations of caribou and snow geese have increased exponentially since a similar polar bear diet study was done in 1968/69. In other words, there were hardly any caribou or geese around back in the late 60s — little wonder polar bears weren’t eating any.

While evidence of polar bears consuming caribou and geese in recent years is certainly an “increase” over late 1960s levels, that fact says more about the status of caribou and geese populations than it does about polar bears and global warming. Media outlets that quoted the press release verbatim, as many do these days (e.g. here, here, and here), missed this essential part of the story – and of course, so did their readers.

[one story picked up the goose population increase and another revealed the caribou population increase, but none that I saw caught both]

In addition, the AMNH press release makes this erroneous statement that was picked up by every media outlet I saw except one (either exactly as written or reworded slightly):

Climate warming is reducing the availability of their ice habitat, especially in the spring when polar bears gain most of their annual fat reserves by consuming seal pups before coming ashore for the summer.” [my bold]

This is flat-out wrong: sea ice declines have been minimal in spring The earliest breakup dates since 1991 for Western Hudson Bay, where this research was done, have been mid-June (according to the most recent study by Cherry et al. 2013) and for the last few years breakup has occurred in July. Spring in the Arctic is March-May; summer is June-August. This error appears to have come from authors, Robert Rockwell and Linda Gormezano, as I show below. Is this just sloppy writing or deliberate misinformation?

Overall, the press release and resulting media reports seem to be further examples of hyping global warming at the expense of the actual science involved and I have to agree with Andrew Derocher’s interpretation of the significance of terrestrial food items for polar bears. See what you think.
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Furor over a tweet from the Moscow polar bear forum

The ousting of WWF and their cohorts from meetings to which they had initially been invited is the real story (so far) coming out of the International Forum on Conservation of Polar Bears (December 3-6, Moscow). However, that incident never made the mainstream media, so few people will ever know it happened.

What the public did hear about was the uproar over a tweet.

On the last day of the meeting, Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq drove home, in less than 140 characters and a photo, the point she and her contingent had been trying to make at the meeting.

Aglukkaq tweet_Dec 5 2013
A twitter storm erupted that got really nasty — and the media picked up on it. Within hours, newspapers across Canada had themselves a story.

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Polar bear researchers still withholding Hudson Bay data

The latest polar bear propaganda emanating from The Guardian is unscientific nonsense fed to them by activist Canadian polar bear researchers: Polar bear numbers in Hudson Bay of Canada on verge of collapse.

This episode of Goldenberg’s polar bear grandstanding includes a photo caption with a totally unsubstantiated claim that some folks might call a lie:

Melting ice is cutting polar bears off from their food source in Hudson Bay, and death rates have soared.

“Death rates have soared”? Where are all the bodies? Show us the starving bears!

In fact, the ice of Hudson Bay melts every summer and always has done. When it does, polar bears go ashore and live off the many inches of stored blubber they put on during their spring feasting on fat baby seals. The last three years, the open-water season has been only about two weeks longer than it was in the 1980s. There has been no steady increase but lots of variability.

Below I dismantle the rest of this transparently political posturing ahead of the international polar bear forum next week.
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Polar bear researchers – are they protecting the bears or their own jobs?

Poor polar bear researchers: there are few full time jobs worldwide and research is underfunded.

This is not my opinion but the facts according to Andrew Derocher and Ian Stirling (2011) — see Fig. 1 and 2 below. I do not dispute them.

Figure 1. The distribution of full-time polar bear researchers worldwide. Graduate students carry out much of the field work, funded by research grants – but eventually, they are going to want full-time jobs too. Where will the money come from? From Derocher and Stirling 2011. Slide 8 from “Conservation status, monitoring, and information gaps.” Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, USA contingent. Oct 24-26, 2011.

Figure 1. The distribution of full-time polar bear researchers worldwide. From Derocher and Stirling 2011, invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, Oct 24-26.

Figure 2. The sad state of polar bear research. From Derocher and Stirling 2011. Slide from “Conservation status, monitoring, and information gaps.” Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, USA contingent. Oct 24-26, 2011.

Figure 2. The sad state of polar bear research. From Derocher and Stirling 2011, Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, Oct 24-26.

Since Derocher and Stirling have raised the issue, I contend it’s perfectly valid to ask: are polar bear biologists who proclaim their heartfelt fear for the future of polar bears at every opportunity behaving as advocates for polar bears or protecting their own careers?

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Canada again under international pressure to list polar bears as threatened

There was a story in The Guardian on Friday (November 21) about an issue I covered earlier this year (in January): Canada under international pressure to list polar bears as threatened, so far holds out.

This time, Suzanne Goldenberg’s headline proclaims “Canada’s refusal to protect polar bears comes under scrutiny.

The story is all about a petition filed by the ever-litigious Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to the North American free trade organization, the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC), pdf here. The CEC, it seems, has now agreed to investigate the CBD claims.

At issue here is the fact that Canada hasn’t done exactly what the US has done in terms of enacting formal legislation to protect polar bears. Canada, home to 2/3′s of the worlds polar bears (as well as a relatively large Arctic human population) vs. the USA, with the fewest bears in the world but perhaps the loudest, “we know best” attitude. Canada has not declared polar bears to be a species threatened with extinction but the Center for Biological Diversity not only thinks otherwise but thinks someone should force Canada to change its opinion.

It’s more of the same bullying of governments by environmental groups that we’ve come to expect, aided and abetted by activist polar bear biologists.

That said, I suggest you brace yourselves: it’s only going to get worse. We can expect even more of this over the next few weeks, because an important international polar bear meeting is coming up in early December. I expect that the propaganda, aided by an all-too-willing-media, is going to get intense.  Continue reading

Barents Sea polar bear status and sea ice declines

So far, I’ve not discussed the Barents Sea subpopulation in very much detail, except in comparison to other groups. For example, the Barents is considered to be the same type of sea ice “ecoregion” as the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort (discussed here). Previous studies on the Barents Sea polar bear population (Derocher 2005) indicate it may have recovered from extreme levels of overhunting (discussed here) and had stabilized, or was increasing very slowly, as early as 2002 (discussed here) — similar to what has happened in Davis Strait (discussed here).

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

The most recent Barents Sea population estimate was done in 2004 (2,650; range ~1900-3600), based on an aerial survey (Aars et al. 2009). Aerial surveys are the only practical method of establishing population counts in regions like this where many bears never set foot on land. The previous estimate for the Barents (1982) was “2,000-5,000” but its accuracy was considered “poor” (discussed here).

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), in their most recent report, lists the Barents Sea population as “data deficient” for status, current trend and estimated risk of decline within 10 years (Obbard et al. 2010:62, Table 1) and the “notes” for this entry say:

Population estimate is based on a new aerial survey. There was likely an increase in the subpopulation size after 1973 until recently. Current growth trend is unknown.

This 2004 estimate is now almost a decade old and potentially no longer an accurate representation of what’s happening in the Barents Sea. The most up-to-date information has not yet been published but it is available online. It’s eye-opening to say the least, if only that it appears to be yet another example of a polar bear population that is so far not showing signs of being harmed by sea ice declines, as I’ve discussed before (here).

[Update October 15, 2013: I’ve simplified the text discussion and figure regarding the Aars and Andersen denning study from the original posted]

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Polar bears have not been harmed by sea ice declines in summer – the evidence

PB  logo colouredThe polar bear biologists and professional activists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) continue to insist that since 1979 increasingly smaller amounts of Arctic sea ice left at the end of summer (the September ice minimum) have already caused harm to polar bears. They contend that global warming due to CO2 from fossil fuels (“climate warming” in their lexicon) is the cause of this decline in summer ice.

In a recent (2012) paper published in the journal Global Change Biology (“Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence”), long-time Canadian PBSG  members Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (both of University of Alberta) summarized their position this way:

“Climate warming is causing unidirectional changes to annual patterns of sea ice distribution, structure, and freeze-up. We summarize evidence that documents how loss of sea ice, the primary habitat of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), negatively affects their long-term survival”

I’ve spent the last year examining their evidence of on-going harm, but in addition, I’ve looked at the evidence (much of it not mentioned in the Stirling and Derocher paper1) that polar bears have either not been harmed by less sea ice in summer or have thrived in spite of it.

This is a summary of my findings. I’ve provided links to my original essays on individual topics, which are fully referenced and illustrated. You are encouraged to consult them for complete details. This synopsis (pdf with links preserved, updated; pdf with links as footnotes, updated) complements and updates a previous summary, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (pdf with links preserved; pdf with a foreword by Dr. Matt Ridley, with links as footnotes).

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