IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group out-lived its usefulness 20 years ago

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) should have been disbanded in 1996, the year polar bears were down-graded from a status of ‘vulnerable to extinction’ to ‘lower risk – conservation dependent’ (now called ‘least concern’) on the IUCN Red List.

Bumpersticker from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, courtesy Joe Prins.

Bumpersticker from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, courtesy Joe Prins.

Polar bears had recovered from previous decades of wanton over-hunting — by all measures used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they were a conservation success story.

Why did the IUCN and Arctic governments not break up the PBSG back in 1996? Leaving the group intact once polar bears were down-graded to ‘least concern’ simply made its members desperate to justify their existence. That’s precisely what we’ve seen over the last 20 years — PBSG members working tirelessly to ensure the organization didn’t go extinct.

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In fact, polar bears are in no more danger of extinction now than they were in 1996, despite dedicated efforts of the PBSG to convince the world otherwise. Take a look at the history and see if you come to a different conclusion.

Polar bears retained their 1996 classification of ‘least concern’ for ten years, until 2006. The late 1990s had to have been unsettling for the PBSG but they soon formulated a plan that ensured their survival.

By 2006, the IUCN had accepted the PBSG’s 2005 opinion that sea ice declines due to predicted human-caused global warming were so dire-sounding that polar bears should be returned to the ‘vulnerable’ classification, even though they were still doing well by all other criteria.

The PBSG were so desperate for this result that they allowed no criticism: they kicked long-standing PBSG member Mitch Taylor out of the organization for publicly expressing doubts about the veracity of the climate models. The politicization of the PBSG was sealed by that action.

Since 2006, PBSG biologists have been very busy. They worked hard, assisted by the activist conservation organization, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to convince the USA to follow the lead of the IUCN, which worked a treat. They then vied to get Canada to follow suit, but that was a rather miserable failure, even with back-door pressure tactics by the ever-so-helpful CBD.

Now, the PBSG are fighting for their existence again. They are engaged in a desperate attempt to keep the IUCN classification of ‘vulnerable’ based on predicted threats from global warming (still the only available option), while complying with much stricter IUCN assessment rules. There is no real guarantee the PBSG submission will be successful, given how many polar bear regions still have no (or out-of-date) population estimates and how imprecise sea ice models have proven to be over time scales of 10-20 years.

As I showed in my last post, the IUCN and the USA are clear outliers in their conservation classifications of polar bears and their primary prey species.

Polar bears are virtually the only Arctic marine mammals formally considered ‘threatened’ or ‘vulnerable’ on the basis of predicted (future) sea ice losses, but not all nations agree. When you look at the status of Arctic seals and walrus (who don’t have specialist groups to champion their cause), the favoured status of the polar bear stands out.

It appears likely to me that sometime over the last few years, the IUCN standards committee finally looked carefully at the 2005 recommendation made by the Polar Bear Specialist Group to re-list the bears as ‘vulnerable’ based on future threats and found (as I did) that it was embarrassingly devoid of science. Regardless, IUCN modeling specialists did look carefully at the US justification for listing polar bears as ‘threatened’ and found it contained grave scientific shortcomings. As a consequence, the IUCN changed the rules for every conservation group intent on using future threats as a listing criterion and told the Polar Bear Specialist Group to redo their work.

If assessed earlier this year using available data, polar bears would likely have been listed as ‘data deficient’ – because despite 40 or so years of research, the PBSG had no population size data to plug into predictive models for almost half of the world’s bears (see discussions here, here, and here). The IUCN is now demanding numbers for all subpopulations, not just a handful.

Over the last couple of years, PBSG biologists and their students have been pulling out all the stops to keep polar bears on the IUCN’s list of ‘threatened’ species and the public convinced that the bears are in serious trouble. This strategy not only assures the survival of the PGSG but jobs for polar bear biologists.

Recently, PBSG biologists and some of their employers have been playing the media more than ever, a trick they’ve learned from their conservation activists pals (some of whom are now PBSG members). Down-sizing of science journalism everywhere means that press releases are invariably reprinted word for word and “interviews” are simply opportunities to make statements that wouldn’t pass peer-review.

No one asks tough questions of polar bear researchers and they’ve learned to count on that. PBSG biologists know a compliant, openly-biased media will provide a bullhorn whenever one is needed. Regardless of the actual results of the polar bear research published in peer-reviewed journals, the media simply accept as valid whatever statements authors provide, especially if they imply that the situation for polar bears is worse than ever. Conservation activist groups and activist news writers pile on at every turn.

Given this situation, 2015 is likely to be worse than ever for polar bear spin. PBSG-member biologists and their colleagues will continue their frantic bids to stay relevant. Just keep reminding yourself that all the hype has very little to do with the conservation status of polar bears and virtually everything to do with the survival of the IUCN PBSG as an organization and the economic future of polar bear biologists and their ever-growing crop of students.

In truth, polar bears are no safer now because of the PBSG than they were in 1996. Individual Arctic nations (including Canada) have organized their own population counts and other research, set their own quotas, and brokered  cooperative deals with indigenous groups and their Arctic neighbours — all of the things necessary to effectively manage recovered polar bear populations.

Polar bears are also in no more danger of extinction now than they were in 1996, despite dedicated efforts of the PBSG to convince the world that prophesied sea ice changes of dubious accuracy might have dire consequences some day.

Given the matured state of polar bear research in all Arctic nations compared to 1968, what precisely has the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group done in the last 20 years except keep itself viable through fear-mongering? The PBSG might have been needed back in 1968 but they’ve out-lived their usefulness by a wide margin in the 21st century.

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