Tag Archives: threatened

Reflections on my House of Lords lecture: Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science

Here is an excerpt of an essay I wrote reflecting on the recent (11 June 2014) lecture I gave at the House of Lords in London (“Healthy polar bears, less than healthy science”). The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has just published that 14 page essay in its entirety as its 10th such report but you can get a taste of it here.


My piece addressed the following issues that I talked about in the lecture or which came up afterwards during the question period and discussions later:

•  On what do you base your assertion that polar bear populations are “healthy”?
•  Are the media — or polar bear scientists — to blame for hyping the “polar bears are dying” meme?
•  How significant was the recent dismissal of a petition to force Canada into listing polar bears as ‘threatened with extinction’?
•  What do the recent actions of the Polar Bear Specialist Group say about their commitment to good science?
•  Is my blog helping to “self-correct” the science on polar bears?

The highlighted point is copied in full below. See the full essay here.
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PBSG determined to see polar bears listed as threatened by the IUCN in 2015

IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group conservation biologists are determined to have polar bears listed as ‘threatened with extinction’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2015 – even though the bears would not meet that classification if assessed today.

According to the minutes of their last meeting (in addition to the astonishing admissions from sea ice experts I reported yesterday), PBSG members are busy planning their strategy. They have thrown objectivity to the wind and are certain they can find a way to mask overcome the inadequacies of their case and see polar bears remain listed as ‘vulnerable’ (IUCN-equivalent to ‘threatened’ in the US) on the 2015 IUCN Red List update.

polar-bear_USFWS labeled

Along with some other priceless quotes, the minutes reveal their plan. See the original document for the context of these quotes here and an excerpt of “the plan” (pgs. 12-17) here. Continue reading

W Hudson Bay mark-recapture studies of polar bears were invalid, says peer-reviewed study

“Our results suggest that mark–recapture estimates may have been negatively biased due to limited spatial sampling. We observed large numbers of bears summering in southeastern WH, an area not regularly sampled by mark–recapture.” Stapleton et al. 2014.

Polar bear at Wapusk National Park (just south of Churchill) in August 2011. Courtesy Parks Canada.

Polar bear at Wapusk National Park in August 2011. Courtesy Parks Canada.

We’ve seen the results of this 2011 study before, in government report format. But now it’s been revamped, peer-reviewed and published in a respected scientific journal – it actually came out in February, without fanfare, but I’ve only just come across it.

Some excerpts below, with conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

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Activists pressure tactics to force Canada to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ have failed

The Center for Biological Diversity has failed in its bid to use NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to pressure Canada to list polar bears as a species ‘threatened’ with extinction — wrapping up a story I wrote about twice last year (here and here).

Chukchi male 1240 lbs labeled Durner 2008

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Southern Beaufort polar bear ‘decline’ & reduced cub survival touted in 2008 was invalid, PBSG now admits

It is now clear that the phenomenon of bears moving across Southern Beaufort Seapbsg logo subpopulation boundaries compromised the US decision to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) knows that was the case.

As I pointed out last week, the PBSG has admitted in their 2013 status table update (pdf here) that bears move around so much between the Chukchi Sea (CS), the Southern Beaufort (SB), and the Northern Beaufort (NB) subpopulations that major changes in the boundaries of the SB subpopulation are necessary (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas – and population estimates. Southern Beaufort boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas and population estimates. Southern Beaufort (SB) boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea (CS) is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort (NB) is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Well, that’s not really news — changes to the SB boundaries were promised by the PBSG back in 2009 (Obbard et al. 2010), based on research by Steven Amstrup and colleagues published in 2001 and 2005. But now, in an astonishing admission, the PBSG have acknowledged that the last population survey for the SB (Regehr, Amstrup and Stirling, 2006), which appeared to register a decline in population size and reduced cub survival over time, did not take known movements of bears into account as it should have done.

In other words, that 2006 study almost certainly did not indicate bears dying due to reduced summer sea ice in the SB, as biologists said at the time — and which they presented as evidence that polar bears should be listed by the ESA as ‘threatened’ — but reflected capture of bears that were never part of the SB subpopulation and so moved out of the region.

As the PBSG said about the 2006 estimate:

“…it is important to note that there is the potential for un-modeled spatial heterogeneity in mark-recapture sampling that could bias survival and abundance estimates.” [my emphasis]

Spatial heterogeneity” means that the sampled bears could have come from more than one population, a possibility which violates a critical requirement of the statistics used to generate the population and survival estimates. “Un-modeled” means that the ‘movement of bears’ problem was not factored into the mathematical models that generated the 2006 population size and survival estimates as it should have been.

Ecologist Jim Steele pointed some of this out in his book and his guest post last year, so it’s not news that this was done.

What’s shocking is that the PBSG have now admitted that the ‘movement of bears’ issue essentially invalidates the 2006 population estimate and the much-touted ‘reduced survival of cubs.’ The reduced survival of cubs data from that SB study was a critical component of the argument that US bears were already being negatively impacted by global warming and thus, should be listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA (US Fish & Wildlife Service 2008).

Since the population decline and reduced survival is now acknowledged to be unfounded — and perhaps deliberately so — I ask you this: will a new SB survey — soon to be released by the same lead author (Eric Regehr) — undo the broken trust in US and PBSG polar bear biologists? Continue reading

Amstrup repeats starving polar bear nonsense, features “Ursus bogus”

As if on cue just before an important polar bear announcement, Steven Amstrup, full time employee of Polar Bears International (PBI), is crying “starving polar bears” yet again, with a laughable twist.

Over at “The Conversation” (a university supported forum for academics), in a piece titled “Cold weather in the US no solace for starving polar bears,” Amstrup uses his adjunct affiliation at University of Wyoming to unleash a bit of unpaid advertising for PBI’s alarmist message (I put it this way because while Amstrup  does disclose his affiliation at PBI, he is more than just an affiliated member, he is their paid spokesperson).

Ironically, the headline photo (Fig. 1) is the notorious “Ursus bogus,” the photoshopped image used by the journal Science back in May 2010 to feature an article on the integrity of science, It was quickly exposed by Tim Blair at The Telegraph (also covered at WUWT), and the journal was obliged to acknowledge the error, replace the image and issue a correction.

In this case, commenter Brad Keyes at The Conversation defends the use of the “Ursus bogus” image with this astonishing statement [UPDATE Jan. 25/14: it has since transpired that this was almost certainly meant to be satire]:

The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’—and readers’—attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

Figure 1. The headline photo from Steven Amstrup’s article at The Conversation. This infamous “Ursus bogus” image (for sale at IStock photos, listed under “Global warming images”), says “This image is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.”

Figure 1. The headline photo from Steven Amstrup’s article at The Conversation. This infamous “Ursus bogus” image (for sale at IStock photos, listed under “Global warming images), says “This image is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.”

However, we now know that Amstrup is crying wolf — summer sea ice has been declining despite a hiatus in global warming and unusual numbers of polar bears are not starving. He seems to think that if he keeps repeating his Chicken Little message (with nary a recent photo of an actual starving polar bear) he will convince more people to believe him and donate to PBI. It’s his job to do so of course, so he’s not likely to stop. [pardon my mixed metaphor – Amstrup, if you recall, prefers a Titanic metaphor]
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Polar bear conservation: the next 10 years

As 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of an international agreement to protect polar bears from commercial and unregulated sport hunting, many eyes are looking to the immediate future. What should polar bear conservation look like over the next 10 years?

Do we base conservation measures over the next 10 years on the grim computer-generated scenarios predicted to occur decades from now or on the positive news from recent polar bear studies?

Should we base conservation measures over the next 10 years on the grim computer-generated scenarios predicted to occur decades from now or on the positive news coming from recent polar bear studies?

This week (December 3-6), the five Arctic nations that signed the original agreement are meeting in Moscow to examine this issue and renew the vows they took back in 1973 — but with a decidedly new focus (International Forum on Conservation of Polar Bears).

According to the draft agenda, the delegates will address among other things the perceived threats of future sea ice declines due to climate change and trade in polar bear trophies.

However, polar bears are currently doing well despite recent declines in summer sea ice, and CITES rejected a US-led proposal to ban polar bear trade at their meeting last March – as they did in 2010 – because it was deemed unwarranted.

At this time, polar bear numbers have not declined due to climate change: their “threatened” status in some countries is based on computer-modeled predictions of what might happen three or more decades from now, not ten years ahead.

In fact, polar bears are a conservation success story. Their numbers have rebounded remarkably since 1973: there are many more polar bears now than there were 40 years ago. While polar bear numbers appear to have been stable since 2001 (at 20,000-25,000 bears), this is based on creative accounting by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Numbers have actually increased by about 2,600 to 5,700 bears since 2001.

The last assessment made by the PBSG in 2009 showed only one polar bear population (Western Hudson Bay) had a statistically significant decline in recent years. Numbers of Western Hudson Bay bears declined 22% between 1998 and 2004, which has been blamed on declining sea ice cover over the last 20 years.

[While a new population estimate, showing a further decline in Western Hudson Bay bears, was released to The Guardian (UK) newspaper last week, that estimate comes from a report that has not yet been made public by Environment Canada. Details of the study are unknown.]

Compare this situation to the adjacent population that lives in Southern Hudson Bay. Polar bears in Southern Hudson Bay have experienced the same increase in length of ice-free season as bears in Western Hudson Bay, but the Southern Hudson Bay population has remained stable over the last 30 years.

Why would a slight lengthening of the ice-free season devastate Western Hudson Bay bears but leave Southern Hudson Bay bear numbers unaffected? Perhaps, it’s because the population in the west has been returning to a smaller, sustainable level after rapid population growth in the 1980s: bears had been heavily over-hunted in Western Hudson Bay before the 1973 protection treaty was enacted.

Aside from the documented declines in Western Hudson Bay, a few other populations were assumed by the PBSG in 2009 to be declining. However, these assessments were based on computer projections over 10 years rather than an actual decline in numbers. Since then, there has not been an official PBSG update of the global population estimate.

We do know that in many regions of the Arctic, polar bears are doing just fine. For example, a recent study shows that bears in the Chukchi Sea are in excellent condition and reproducing very well, despite a dramatic decline in summer sea ice. Contrary to what the computer models predicted, Chukchi bears (shared between the US and Russia) are doing better than virtually all other polar bear populations.

In the Chukchi Sea, ringed seals – the primary prey of polar bears everywhere, now listed as “threatened” in the USA – are also doing better now than they were 20 years ago. As a consequence, bears had more food the next spring, not less, despite the marked decline of summer sea ice.

In fact, polar bear populations in a number of regions have not responded as predicted to recent summer sea ice losses, calling into question the accuracy of models that predicted a decline of 2/3 of the world’s polar bears by mid-century.

This is not really surprising, since we know that over geological time, polar bears have survived extended periods of much less ice than today. A recent genetic study indicated that polar bears survived the Eemian interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) with a relatively large population, despite much less ice than today. Computer models, on the other hand, predicted almost total extinction of polar bears under similar conditions.

Why this disconnect between predictions and reality? It turns out that summer ice melt (the level recorded in September, announced with much fanfare every year) has impacted polar bears much less than expected. That’s because spring is the prime feeding period for the big white bears, and spring ice coverage (March to June) has changed little over the last 30 years.

In other words, the focus on declines in summer sea ice as a major threat to polar bear survival is a red herring.

Polar bears were indeed threatened with extinction by the early 1970s and Arctic nations were quite correct to sign a treaty to protect them from unregulated hunting. But today, polar bears have a large population that is well distributed throughout their available territory, a recognized characteristic of a healthy species.

Polar bears were brought back from the brink of extinction and are now thriving. Instead of rejoicing over the success of 40 years of good conservation practices and planning to do more of the same, the focus of this week’s meeting of Arctic nations appears to be speculating what awful things might happen decades from now.

Everyone wants to see polar bears continue to thrive. In my opinion, what we need over the next 10 years is dispassionate scientific information — something that has been sorely lacking over the last decade. More polar bear research is absolutely a requirement but we need the results presented without emotional appeals for a particular agenda. Objective scientific information will most effectively guide rational polar bear conservation and sound management practices.

What we don’t need is a computer-manufactured crisis to replace a problem that’s already been solved — or a ban on trade of a healthy species, unless there is very strong evidence of organized poaching and illegal trade.

Ultimately, what will the meeting in Moscow accomplish? It appears that any agreement signed by government representatives will not be a legally binding contract, in contrast to the 1973 treaty. Over the next few days, the press releases and news reports will tell us what the parties involved think they achieved.