Word that Russia is planning to generate a count of polar bears along its entire Arctic coast within the next few years is good news indeed, as it will resolve a long-standing gap in population estimates that have not been dealt with at all well by the polar bear community. Whether North American and European academics will accept the results of the aerial surveys is another matter entirely, especially if the numbers are higher than they like, which is what happened with the first Russian Kara Sea count in 2013.
Up first will be the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas in 2021, the Laptev and Kara Seas, in 2022, and the eastern Barents Sea around Franz Josef Land in 2023.
Press release (12 February 2020), “Russia to count polar bears for the first time“:
Russia will carry out a full count of the polar bear population for the first time as part of the Ecology national project. Such a decision was made following a meeting of the polar bear conservation and recovery working group under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
According to the plan, an aerial survey of the animals will be conducted in the Chukchi and East Siberian seas in 2021, in the Laptev and Kara seas in 2022 and in the eastern part of the Barents Sea and waters around Franz Josef Land in 2023.
“This way we will get the most complete data on the polar bear population in our country for the first time ever,” the ministry’s press service reports.
The meeting focused on the planning and future preparations for the population monitoring.
“The project’s roadmap designates 2020 for preparatory activities: developing, approving and coordinating the aerial survey operations, training project participants, purchasing equipment, and working out and approving recommended methods of organising and performing the polar bear count,” reads the report.
Participants in the working group meeting also noted that the study will take into account the polar bear conservation strategy in Russia as well as such international arrangements as the agreement between the USSR, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States on polar bear conservation of 1973 and the agreement between the Russian and US governments on the conservation and management of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population concluded in 2000.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has so far ignored the count done in the Kara Sea in 2013 by Russian biologists, which generated an estimate of 3,200 bears (range 2,700-3,500)(Matishov et al. 2014, in English). They used this number when they had to for the official 2015 Red List assessment – because if they hadn’t, the IUCN threatened to list polar bears as ‘data deficient’. However, the PBSG still list the population size as ‘unknown’ on their website status table (updated in September 2019) and do not cite the Matishov et al. paper. The Chukchi Sea estimate of 2,937 bears (1522-5944, from 2016)(AC SWG 2018; Regehr et al. 2018) does get listed on the PBSG website – even though it required extrapolation from one small area of survey in US territory to the entire US/Russia region (see map below from the Regehr paper).
In my discussion of that Chukchi Sea survey, I pointed out that the Laptev Sea is now apt to have many more bears than the 1993 estimate of about 1,000 bears, since it is a huge region where 85% of it is continental shelf habitat preferred by polar bears most of the year. Time will tell whether I was right or not about the Laptev Sea – and whether the counts from across Russia will be in line with my ‘best guess’ global estimate of 39,000 (26,000-58,000) that I proposed in The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened as a plausible estimate at 2018.
AC SWG 2018. Chukchi-Alaska polar bear population demographic parameter estimation. Eric Regehr, Scientific Working Group (SWG. Report of the Proceedings of the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears, 27-28 July 2018), pg. 5. Published 30 July 2018. US Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/bilateral.htm pdf here.
Matishov, G.G., Chelintsev, N.G., Goryaev, Yu. I., Makarevich, P.R. and Ishkulov, D.G. 2014. Assessment of the amount of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) on the basis of perennial vessel counts. Doklady Earth Sciences 458 (2):1312-1316. [paywalled]
[Original Russian Text © G.G. Matishov, N.G. Chelintsev, Yu.I. Goryaev, P.R. Makarevich, D.G. Ishkulov, 2014, published in Doklady Akademii Nauk, 2014, Vol. 458, No. 6, pp. 706–710.] Lead author email: firstname.lastname@example.org ]
Regehr, E.V., Hostetter, N.J., Wilson, R.R., Rode, K.D., St. Martin, M., Converse, S.J. 2018. Integrated population modeling provides the first empirical estimates of vital rates and abundance for polar bears in the Chukchi Sea. Scientific Reports 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-34824-7 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34824-7