Tag Archives: population size

Low genetic diversity will not make polar bears more vulnerable to extinction

You’ve probably heard the argument: animal populations that have been through a major decline in numbers often have such low genetic diversity that they are extremely vulnerable to subsequent extinction.

Photo credit USGS

Photo credit USGS

In an interview in late March regarding a new genetic paper on polar bear evolution (by Matt Cronin and colleagues), polar bear biologist and Polar Bears International spokesperson Steve Amstrup made a ridiculous statement: that polar bears have never experienced a rate of warming like they’ve seen over the last 30 years. I countered that easily here.

In that same interview about the Cronin et al. paper, fellow geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that is as easy to refute as Amstrup’s “unprecedented rate of warming” nonsense.

I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April [where has the time gone?] but want to get back to it now because it’s important: there is lots of evidence to support my contention that polar bears are not more vulnerable to extinction just because they have low genetic diversity.
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IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group says its global population estimate was “a qualified guess”

Last week (May 22), I received an unsolicited email from Dr. Dag Vongraven, the current chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

pbsg logo

The email from Vongraven began this way:

Dr. Crockford

Below you’ll find a footnote that will accompany a total polar bear population size range in the circumpolar polar bear action plan that we are currently drafting together with the Parties to the 1973 Agreement. This might keep you blogging for a day or two.” [my bold]

It appears the PBSG have come to the realization that public outrage (or just confusion) is brewing over their global population estimates and some damage control is perhaps called for. Their solution — bury a statement of clarification within their next official missive (which I have commented upon here).

Instead of issuing a press release to clarify matters to the public immediately, Vongraven decided he would let me take care of informing the public that this global estimate may not be what it seems.

OK, I’ll oblige (I am traveling in Russia on business and finding it very hard to do even short posts – more on that later). The footnote Vongraven sent is below, with some comments from me. You can decide for yourself if the PBSG have been straight-forward about the nature of their global population estimates and transparent about the purpose for issuing it.
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Polar Bear Specialist Group population status update – officially postponed

I kept a close watch on the website of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) over the weekend to see if an actual population status update might eventually appear (see my last post).

Nothing all weekend, but today (Monday, February 3), the “Population status – Status table” tab (where the 2010 status table was inserted on Friday), returned an error message — the out-of-date status table put up on the day an updated one was promised was simply gone.

However, I noticed that the last sentence of the original December 16, 2013 “Population status reviews announcement had been changed, without any indication that it had been amended.

From December 16, 2013 until February 2, 2014 that last sentence said:

“The new status table and assessments will be published as they are available in web format no later than February 1, 2014.

Now it reads:

“The new status table and assessments will be published as they are available in web format in February, 2014.” [my bold]

The date stamp on this page is February 3, 2014, see screen cap below.

What do you call this — “Bayesian transparency”? I think it means a polar bear population status update may be forthcoming…sometime.

PBSG Population status reviews_Feb 3 2014 notice

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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Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation status, farthest south of all polar bears

“The Arctic” is a bit hard to define. While the Arctic Circle works as a good boundary for some purposes and the 100C isotherm for July for others, neither work for polar bears because several subpopulations live well south of these limits (Fig. 1).

In the east, Western Hudson Bay, Southern Hudson Bay and Davis Strait are all located well south of the Arctic Circle and the first two (and half of Davis Strait) are beyond the 100C July isotherm as well. In the western Arctic, the Chukchi Sea subpopulation is within the 100C July isotherm but at least half of its bears reside south of the Arctic Circle (Fig. 1) in the Bering Sea (see previous post here).

Unique amongst all of these is Southern Hudson Bay – all of its polar bears make maternity dens and/or spend the summer south of 600N.

Southern Hudson Bay (SH) bears live in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, while Western Hudson Bay (WH) bears reside in Manitoba and Nunavut. The two groups mix over the winter but appear to spend the summer/fall in their respective regions (Stirling et al. 2004). [See previous posts on Western Hudson Bay bears here, here, and here]

“Further south” in the Arctic usually means warmer, with open water present more weeks every summer, sea ice for fewer weeks over the winter. So, shouldn’t the bears of Southern Hudson Bay be already suffering more harm from global warming than virtually all other subpopulations, including those in Western Hudson Bay?

After all, Western Hudson Bay bears appear to have experienced a statistically significant decline in numbers, among other effects (Regehr et al. 2007; Stirling and Derocher 2012) — surely Southern Hudson Bay bears are doing worse?

You’d think so, but they aren’t.

Figure 1. Boundary limits for “the Arctic” (top map) such as the Arctic Circle (dashed line) or the 100C isotherm for July (solid red line) would not include several polar bear subpopulations that live south of these.

Figure 1. Boundary limits for “the Arctic” (top map) such as the Arctic Circle (dashed line) or the 100C isotherm for July (solid red line) would not include several polar bear subpopulations that live south of these.

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Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001

The official population estimates generated by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) give the impression that the global total of polar bears has not changed appreciably since 2001:

2001 PBSG report                  21,500-25,000

2005 PBSG report                  20,000-25,000

2009 PBSG report                  20,000-25,000

2013 PBSG website                20,000-25,000

However, some accounting changes were done between 2001 and 2009 (the latest report available) that mean a net increase in numbers had to have taken place (see summary map below and previous post here. Note this is a different issue than the misleading PBSG website graphic discussed here).

And while it is true that population “estimates” are just that — rather broad estimates rather than precise counts — it is also true that nowhere do the PBSG explain how these dropped figures and other adjustments were accounted for in the estimated totals. 

The simple details of these changes are laid out below, in as few words as I could manage, to help you understand how this was done and the magnitude of the effect. It’s a short read — see what you think.

UPDATE February 14, 2014a new status table has been released, see new post here 

UPDATE February 18, 2014 — see graphs of the 1981-2013 estimates here.

Polar bear subpopulations as defined by the PBSG: Top, in the 2001 report; Bottom, 2009 report. Map courtesy PBSG, with a few labels added and the subpopulations identified where “accounting” changes or adjustments to estimates took place.SB, Southern Beaufort; NB, Northern Beaufort; VM, Viscount Melville; MC, M’Clintock Channel; LS, Lancaster Sound; GB, Gulf of Boothia; NW, Norwegian Bay; KB, Kane Basin; WH, Western Hudson Bay. Click to enlarge.

Polar bear subpopulations as defined by the PBSG: Top, in the 2001 report; Bottom, 2009 report. Map courtesy PBSG, with a few labels added and the subpopulations identified where “accounting” changes or adjustments to estimates took place.
SB, Southern Beaufort; NB, Northern Beaufort; VM, Viscount Melville; MC, M’Clintock Channel; LS, Lancaster Sound; GB, Gulf of Boothia; NW, Norwegian Bay; KB, Kane Basin; WH, Western Hudson Bay. Click to enlarge.

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Guest post: How ‘science’ counts bears

This essay by Dr. Jim Steele, professor emeritus, San Francisco State University, is reblogged from a July 3 2013 post at WUWT post, with Dr. Steele’s permission. I am not a field biologist and have never done a mark-recapture study but Dr. Steele has. His perspective on the way polar bear biologists count bears and estimate survival in the Southern Beaufort is a perfect companion to yesterday’s post, a related post that I’ll put up later this week, and this one from December, among others. I’ve added links to the references cited in this essay where they are available, as is my custom. See the original post for Jim’s responses to comments and questions.

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Guest post by Jim Steele   “How ‘science’ counts bears”

The Inuit claim “it is the time of the most polar bears.” By synthesizing their community’s observations they have demonstrated a greater accuracy counting Bowhead whales and polar bears than the models of credentialed scientists. To estimate correctly, it takes a village. In contrast the “mark and recapture” study, which claimed the polar bears along South Beaufort Sea were victims of catastrophic global warming and threatened with extinction, relied on the subjective decisions of a handful of modelers.

In mark and recapture studies, the estimate of population abundance is skewed by the estimate of survival. For example, acknowledging the great uncertainty in his calculations of survival, in his earlier studies polar beat expert Steven Amstrup reported three different population estimates for bears along the South Beaufort Sea. If he assumed the adult bears had an 82% chance of surviving into the next year, the models calculated there were 1301 bears. If survivorship was 88%, the abundance climbed to 1776 bears. If he estimated survivorship at a more robust 94%, then polar bear abundance climbed to 2490.1 Thus depending on estimated survival rates, a mark-and-recapture study may conclude that the population has doubled, or that it has suddenly crashed.

Here are the simplified basics of estimating survival.

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