Polar bear capital of the world stuck between fear-mongering and science

CBS News published a predictably one-sided “Cover Story” this morning (14 February 2016) about Churchill, Manitoba – the self-proclaimed Polar Bear Capital of the World. 

This is the online version of a Sunday morning TV special that’s not available where I live. It’s yet another example of how the media feeds the politics of polar bears and prevents the advancement of science. Here’s my take on this CBS effort.

Amstrup vs IUCN science_Feb 14 2016_PolarBearScience

The story presented by Lee Cowan (“The polar bear capital of the world”) included numerous quotes from an interview, presumably from last fall, with Polar Bears International employee Steven Amstrup.  Amstrup, an American biologist, again repeated his scientifically-flawed and overly pessimistic opinion about the future of polar bears in general and for Churchill bears in particular [I discussed that misinformation last fall here].

The story also quoted the badly out-of-date population estimate of 20,000-25,000, which the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has not used since July 2014, when they listed the global number as “about 25,000.” By November 2015, a new IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears put the global estimate at 20,000-31,000 (an average of about 25,500).

Poor old Churchill: it’s kind of stuck in the middle. On one side are the self-serving promotional activities of Steven Amstrup and Polar Bears International, essentially speaking on behalf of the town. On the other, there’s the most respected species protection organization in the world (the IUCN Red List), who have recently attempted to dampen the unscientific influence that Amstrup has imposed on international polar bear conservation.

I was contacted by the producer of this piece (Dustin Stephens) back in June 2015 and warned him that Amstrup and PBI were not the voice of science they claimed to be. Wasted time and words: Amstrup’s fear-mongering and misinformation won out.

It almost makes you wonder: do Amstrup and Polar Bears International control Churchill as thoroughly as it appears to outsiders? Does Churchill even care about getting the science of polar bears right?

Churchill Wapusk Nat Park_Parks Canada

Here is the comment I left below the CBS piece (see my last few posts (like this one or this one) which discuss the 2015 Red List decision):

“It’s true – Amstrup’s predictions for the future of polar bears in 2008 were grim. The model he developed used his personal opinions about polar bear reactions to possible future scenarios as facts. A few people complained about the methods but most took his word for it – the bears were screwed.

But its 2015 2016 and the situation has changed. [my typo in original]

In 2015, when forced to use acceptable scientific and statistical methods for such predictive biological models, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group members who authored the assessment for their parent organization, the IUCN Red List, found the situation is so much less than dire it can only be said to be only mildly worrying.

They estimated the global population size at 20,000-31,000 bears (Nov. 2015) and only a 70% chance of a 30% decline in global polar bear numbers by 2050 IF summer sea ice declines as predicted. That’s a slightly better than 50:50 chance of a significant decline in numbers – far from the ‘sure thing’ that Amstrup describes.

Oddly, Amstrup seems not to have mentioned that 2015 Red List assessment to this CBS reporter, even though he was a co-author of it. The report was submitted to the Red List folks in the summer of 2015, so Amstrup knew in October 2015 that its release was imminent. It was published on November 18 – conveniently after the 2015 Churchill polar bear season.

What’s also odd is that the PBSG has not updated their own website with this information.

Don’t take my word for it, search “IUCN Red List polar bears 2015.” Be sure to open and read the “supplemental” file (a pdf), which describes the details of the analysis.

The Red List maintained the status of ‘vulnerable’ but it’s clear the criteria were only barely met.

The Red List Standards Committee is to be commended for forcing polar bear biologists to clean up their science. However, allowing future threats to be equated with current threats – as if they require the same kind of conservation response – is misleading, confusing, and unscientific.

Compare the Red List conservation situations for lions and polar bears:

Lions in 2015 were listed as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction because their entire population had already declined by an estimated 43% over the last 20 years (leaving only about 7,450 remaining). Lions may already be in trouble and steps might be needed to prevent further losses.

Polar bears in 2015 were listed as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction even though their population trend could only be described as “unknown” (with an estimated global population of 20,000-31,000), but a prediction for the next 3 generations (35 years) suggested it *could* decline by 30% by 2050.

In what universe are these two conservation situations so similar that the label ‘vulnerable’ describes them both?

At best, the Red List needs a new status category for polar bears – something like ‘potentially vulnerable’ or ‘future vulnerable’ – so the people will immediately know that concern is about a prophesied outcome, not one that has already taken place.

Dr. Susan Crockford, zoologist (see PolarBearScience)”

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