Low mid-winter polar bear habitat in Barents Sea spawns warnings of more human-bear conflicts

There’s abundant sea ice in the Bering, Greenland and Labrador Seas, although less than usual in the Barents Sea because strong winds drove the ice north. Any time there is a bit less sea ice than usual the catastrophists begin caterwauling but this time the rhetoric is a little different.


At 14 Feb 2023, courtesy NSIDC Masie

Pretty typical for this time of year except for the Barents Sea (more details below) and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada (where there are no bears).

Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea

At 15 February 2023, courtesy Norwegian Ice Service

Strong winds–not melting ice–pushed ice north of Svalbard towards the pole and opened up a polynya north of Franz Josef Land caused a record low for sea ice in the Barents Sea on 13 February:

However, this “most open water” metric is meaningless for polar bears and other Arctic species. A polynya anywhere in the Arctic at this time of year is a blessing for wildlife: open water means a rare feeding area for fish, birds, seals, and polar bears (Stirling 1997; Stirling et al. 1981).

New dominant narrative

As I noted on twitter yesterday, a new narrative is emerging as the dominant explanation for what low sea ice means for polar bears, nudging you to expect more polar bear attacks and problem incidents, not declining numbers. It’s not an entirely new concept (I noticed it first in 2013) but has taken a while to really catch on:

Even Andrew Derocher is onboard:

“Poor ice conditions for polar bears at Svalbard this year. Low ice will make tough hunting conditions this coming spring. Time to plan for more human-bear conflicts unless conditions change.” [13 Feb 2023 tweet, my bold]

Down-side of healthy polar bear populations

It seems these polar bear specialists today are forgetting there’s a down-side to healthy polar bear populations, as I wrote about a few years ago. As Inuit are finding, more bears means more conflicts with humans.

In part, that’s because independent young male polar bears (2-5 years) are less experienced hunters and occupy the bottom of the social hierarchy. Older, bigger bears often take their spring kills of young seals away from them (Stirling 1974:1196) – potentially leaving the teenagers without enough fat to see them through until fall.

More hungry young males coming ashore looking for food is one of the potential consequences of living with a large, healthy population of polar bears. Biologist Ian Stirling warned of such problems back in 1974:

“Dr. Stirling felt that complete cessation of hunting, such as exists in Norway, may increase bear-man conflicts. Dr. Reimers replied that the careful harvesting of polar bears was probably desirable, but the total ban now in effect was largely an emotional and political decision rather than a biological one. Last year four bears were killed in self-defense.” [1974 PBSG meeting “Norway – progress reported by [Thor] Larsen”; Anonymous 1976:11; my bold]


Anonymous. 1976. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 5th meeting of the Polar Bear Specialists Group IUCN/SSC, 3-5 December, 1974, Le Manoir, St. Prex, Switzerland. Gland, Switzerland IUCN.

Stirling, I. 1974. Midsummer observations on the behavior of wild polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Canadian Journal of Zoology 52: 1191-1198. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z74-157#.VR2zaOFmwS4

Stirling, I. 1997. The importance of polynyas, ice edges, and leads to marine mammals and birds. Journal of Marine Systems 10: 9-21.

Stirling, I, Cleator, H. and Smith, T.G. 1981. Marine mammals. In: Polynyas in the Canadian Arctic, Stirling, I. and Cleator, H. (eds), pg. 45-58. Canadian Wildlife Service, Occasional Paper No. 45. Ottawa.

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