An anti-hunting Norwegian activist-photographer has again made unsupported claims about legal polar bear trophy hunting in Canada and its impact on the survival of the species, promoted by two UK tabloid newspapers (The Sun and The Mirror) over the weekend. The reality is that polar bears are no more being driven to extinction by trophy hunting than they are battling to survive the effects of climate change: they are currently thriving.
According to the Mirror, “Awarding-winning wildlife photographer and conservationist Ole Liodden has warned the iconic Arctic species will die out if trophy hunting is allowed to continue” but no reputable biologist or conservation organization says this, including the IUCN Red List, CITES, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, or Polar Bears International. This should tell any rational individual that photographer Ole Liodden is misrepresenting the truth to support his rabid anti-hunting stance.
I understand that some people object to hunting (especially trophy hunting) and wish more people felt like they do – but Liodden’s opinion is nothing more than the emotional rant of a conspiracy theorist and should be ignored.
As I pointed out in May 2019 when a similar story was published by National Geographic, Liodden’s campaign to destroy the market for legally-hunted polar bears in Canada is based on false statements and accusations about over-hunting. According to the National Geographic article [my bold],
“Iverson [Samuel Iverson, head of the polar bear management unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service] ….[says] that climate change could become a problem for polar bears in the future but that at present “the overall polar bear population in Canada is healthy.”
According to Iverson , evidence amassed over three decades shows that Canada’s hunting quota “is not endangering polar bears.” And because populations are assessed and quotas are adjusted every few years, future quotas will account for the effects of climate change. “It’s something that we have mechanisms in place to course correct, if in a given subpopulation there’s a concern.”
Norwegian photographer Ole Liodden apparently has a master’s degree in “nature management and environmental policy“. He takes fabulous polar bear pictures (I purchased one of them, above, for the cover of my novel, EATEN) but his crusade to ban hunting and trade in polar bear products world-wide has lead him to misrepresent essential facts, which is no way to win an argument. A National Geographic writer and several polar bear specialists have provided additional spin and used it as an excuse to promote their failed prophesies that polar bears are doomed: “Should polar bear hunting be legal? It’s complicated” (28 May 2019).
- Liodden’s claim that “between 1963 and 2016, an average of 991 bears were hunted worldwide every year” is a gross misrepresentation of facts. Combining hunting totals from 1963 to 1973 (when some years 1,000 or more bears were taken from Svalbard alone) with totals after 1973 (when international protection was put in place) artificially inflates recent hunting numbers and minimizes the wonton slaughter that went on between 1963 and 1973. This kind of subterfuge undermines the author’s entire argument.
- Inuit polar bear hunting is tightly regulated in Canada. The provision to allow a portion of each region’s subsistence quota to be sold to non-Inuit hunters with deep pockets is one of the very few avenues available for people in northern communities to earn cash. Not all subsistence kills in Canada are trophy kills and the provision to allow trophy kills does not result in any more bears being killed than if only subsistence kills were allowed. Liodden presents no evidence that the system has been abused, despite his fears they might be.
- Polar bears in Canada and around the Arctic are currently thriving and not in imminent danger of extinction.1 Canada considers the polar bear a species of ‘special concern’, a cautiously optimistic status (COSEWIC 2018). The conservation status of ‘threatened’ in the USA and ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN Red List is based on computer model predictions of population declines that might happen decades from now, not declines that have already happened (Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015).
- Polar bear harvet quotas vs. number of bears killed in Canada have been published by the IUCN PBSG every four years or so (e.g. Obbard et al. 2010; Durner et al. 2018), although the latest document, from the 2016 meeting, was not available until 2018 and only included data to 2015. More recent data would have required an FOI request to the government.
- The claim that communities are having more trouble with bears because of reduced sea ice is another misrepresentation of fact. It is based on a declining trend in summer sea ice over time that happens to have coincided with increased problems with bears: it does not describe local conditions at particular locations where attacks or problems with bears have occurred. Virtually every time this claim is trotted out to explain particular cases (here, here, and here), it is easily refuted.
- There has been no trend in summer sea ice between 2007 and 2019 (below), according to the US NSIDC:
- In the 1970s and 1980s, more trouble with bears and more attacks on people were interpreted as evidence of more bears (Crockford 2019; Kearney 1989; Stirling et al. 1977). Since the claim of ‘reduced sea ice’ must be removed from the list of possible explanations, ‘more bears’ is at the top of the list.
- Currently, there are probably about 39,000 (range 26,000-58,000) polar bears worldwide: the claim that ‘only’ 25,000 exist does not take into account recent population surveys or survey numbers generated decades ago (Crockford 2019). The IUCN Red List quoted an estimate of 22,000-31,000 in 2015 but additional surveys have been published since then (Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015).
- There is no evidence or biological foundation to support Liodden’s notion that hunting prime adult males results in “reverse natural selection” (by removing individuals who may be essential to the survival of the species). In fact, targeting big, older males instead of young ones is a benefit to the species because their genes have already been passed on to a multitude of offspring through breeding with many females, while younger males (although perhaps just as healthy and valuable to the species) have not had that opportunity.
- The NG article refers to the 2007 prediction made by USGS biologists that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears will be gone by 2050 (Amstrup et al. 2007) – despite the fact that we know that prediction has already failed. Sea ice has been at 2050 levels for 12 years without causing polar bear numbers to plummet (Crockford 2017, 2019).
Banning international trade in skins has been defeated three times at previous CITES meetings despite intense pressure from the US Fish & Wildlife Service – there was no motion for such a ban made at the 2019 CITES meeting held in August. Using the threat of future polar bear catastrophe due to climate change as an argument to ban aboriginal hunting in Canada or destroy the international market for skins is unfounded and arguably racist, especially since polar bears are thriving despite having lived for the last 12 years with sea ice levels we were assured would be absolutely devastating to their survival.
1. In a newspaper article published in Norway by NRK (26 May 2019) that is similar in tone to the National Geographic piece discussed above, Liodden is quoted as saying that “Canada’s polar bear population has declined 30–40 percent since 1973.” I have not seen his book so I do not know what evidence he uses to back up this bizarre claim. However, I have never seen or heard such an outrageous statement made anywhere before this – not even by the most strident conservation activists or scientists. And as of 2018, Canada still lists the risk level of polar bears as only of ‘special concern’ (COSEWIC 2018). If Liodden was misquoted, he needs to demand a correction from the newspaper.
Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G. & Douglas, D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. US Geological Survey. Reston, VA. Pdf here
COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). 2018. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Polar Bear Ursus maritimus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/cosewic-assessments-status-reports/polar-bear-2018.html
Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/
Durner, G.M., Laidre, K.L, and York, G.S. (eds). 2018. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 18th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, 7–11 June 2016, Anchorage, Alaska. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. Pdf here.
Kearney, S.R., 1989. The Polar Bear Alert Program at Churchill,Manitoba. In: Bromely, M. (Ed.), Bear–People Conflict: Proceedings of a Symposium on Management Strategies, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories Department of Renewable Resources, pp. 83–92. [courtesy M. Dyck, Gov’t of Nunavut] Pdf here.
Obbard, M.E., Theimann, G.W., Peacock, E. and DeBryn, T.D. (eds.) 2010. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 15th meeting of the Polar Bear Specialists Group IUCN/SSC, 29 June-3 July, 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK, IUCN. Pdf here.
Regehr, E.V., Laidre, K.L, Akçakaya, H.R., Amstrup, S.C., Atwood, T.C., Lunn, N.J., Obbard, M., Stern, H., Thiemann, G.W., & Wiig, Ø. 2016. Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters 12: 20160556. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556
Stirling I, Jonkel C, Smith P, Robertson R, Cross D. 1977. The ecology of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) along the western coast of Hudson Bay. Canadian Wildlife Service Occasional Paper No. 33. pdf here.
Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., et al. 2015. Ursus maritimus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. Available from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22823/0 [accessed Nov. 28, 2015]. See the supplement for population figures.