Interviews with US researchers for a piece in the Washington Post earlier today contain revelations that walrus and polar bear populations in the Russian Far East continue to thrive, despite insisting that polar bears face a dire future without human interference.
This article on collateral damage of Russia’s war with Ukraine comes with this stunning sub-headline:
The invasion [of Ukraine] is first and foremost a human tragedy, but it is also dire for wildlife, stalling scientific work on polar bears and other wildlife threatened with extinction.
The article prominently features a researcher working on Chukchi sea polar bears, which are currently thriving but still tagged with a status of “threatened” based entirely on computer models that predict a dire outcome 30 years from now. The writer also interviewed a scientist working on Pacific walrus, which likely number more than 200,000 animals and are not considered “threatened,” a point oddly not mentioned by the author or the researcher interviewed (Crockford 2023; MacCracken et al. 2017; Fischbach et al. 2022; USFWS 2017a,b).
Background: Chukchi Sea walrus
In the Washington Post interview, Anthony Fischbach reveals that a huge haulout of walrus was spotted via satellite in late October 2022 at Cape Serdtse-Kamen (see map below) but that the absolute size of the group could not be estimated without on-site information from Russian colleagues. However, new US government regulations forbade him to communicate with them:
In late October, for instance, the U.S. Geological Survey observed via satellite a massive group of Pacific walruses huddled on Cape Serdtse-Kamen in eastern Russia, covering an area of nearly 200,000 square meters.
There is room for well over 100,000 walrus to haulout on the miles of beach at this location, to which virtually the entire Chukchi Sea population of females and calves migrate in late October/early November.
Fischbach’s Russian informant is none other than Anatoli Kochnev (Chakilev and Kochnev 2019; Fischbach, Kochnev et al. 2016).
Kochnev, you may recall, was also hired as a scientific consultant for the 2019 Netflix/WWF seven part documentary Our Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. That was the film that featured misrepresented scenes of walrus falling to their deaths from the top of cliffs at Cape Schmidt on the coast of the Chukchi Sea (Crockford 2022b). In fact, as I explain in detail in my book, footage from a BBC documentary shown only six months later proved it was polar bears stalking the walrus that precipitated most of the deaths.
The map below shows that walrus were able to reach Cape Serdtse-Kamen in 2021 but were prevented from accessing the cliffs at Cape Schmitd as they usually to in September due to remnant thick sea ice, which meant no walrus feasts for local polar bears.
In 2022 there was less ice along the Russian coast at mid-October but enough that it probably still restricted access to Cape Schmitd but left Vankarem and Cape Serdtse-Kamen available:
Background: Chukchi Sea polar bears
A few months ago I published a summary of research on the Chukchi Sea subpopulation:
An aerial survey of the Chukchi Sea in 2016 generated a population estimate of 5,444 (range 3,636–8,152), about 2,500 greater than a previous survey (Conn et al. 2021; Regehr et al. 2018).
Field studies found Chukchi Sea bears have been in excellent condition and reproducing well, and are not spending more time on land during the summer than they did during the 1980s (Rode et al. 2018, 2021, 2022; Wilson et al. 2016). Reports in early 2022 that polar bears have been moving from Alaska to Russia in a ‘mass exodus’ may describe a real phenomenon that reflects the excellent feeding conditions for bears in the Chukchi Sea compared to Alaska, fueled by continued increases in primary productivity made possible by less summer sea ice (Frey et al. 2022).
The Chukchi Sea has lost as much summer sea ice since 1979 as Western Hudson Bay (Regehr et al. 2016).
“Chukchi bears remain larger and fatter and have not seen downward trends in cub production and survival, according to new preliminary information on the health and numbers of bears.” [The Province, interview with Eric Regehr, 2018, my bold]
Regehr told the Washington Post that he collaborated with the BBC to provide film footage of Wrangel Island polar bears from his work there in 2017 for their Frozen Planet II six-part documentary that aired in September 2022 in the UK. Filming of that series began in 2018, which suggests it was part of Attenborough’s relentless ‘climate change’ and ‘tipping point’ messaging agenda that started in 2015 with the inception of the WWF/Netflix ‘Our Planet‘ blockbuster series and the infamous Russian falling walrus incident mentioned above.
Unsurprisingly, the Wrangel Island footage of a female with two cubs was presented in the film as a dire situation blamed on lack of sea ice (blame on human-caused climate change implied):
Without sea ice, more and more bears are becoming stranded on remote Arctic islands.It’s a dangerous place to be for a mother bear with cubs, surrounded by larger, predatory males. Episode 2: Frozen Ocean.
The other story about polar bears presented in this series takes place on Wrangel Island, where “…a mother polar bear finds herself stranded on a remote island full of threatening males as she struggles to feed her cubs.”
However, Wrangel Island has always been used as a summer refuge for polar bears when the sea ice retreats during the summer and is a critical denning area for pregnant bears, which means this ‘stranding’ of a mother bear and her cubs is not a new phenomenon.
And while slightly more polar bears have indeed spent about one month more on land during the 2010s but without any negative repercussions, in recent years that pattern has changed. As noted above, sea ice along the coast of Chukotka and around Wrangel was very thick the entire summer and fall of 2021 and as the ice chart below shows, at 1 September 2022, Wrangel was still almost completely surrounded by ice, although it did clear eventually a few weeks later:
The conundrum of polar bears and seals thriving in the Chukchi Sea despite less summer sea ice is explained by the fact that primary productivity has increased since sea ice declined after 2002. Studies have shown that more sunlight reaching open water for longer periods in recent years has meant more food for the entire Arctic food chain and that these effects have been strongest in the Chukchi and Barents Seas (Crockford 2023; Frey et al. 2022). More food for fish and seals has meant more food for polar bears in the spring and fatter bears mean more healthy cubs.
In other words, any suggestion in the Frozen Planet II series that Wrangel Island polar bear mothers and cubs might be struggling to survive due to lack of sea ice is not supported by scientific data.
In fact, the Chukchi Sea currently supports the largest subpopulation in the Arctic (Crockford 2022b). A multi-year (2008–2016) capture-recapture survey of bears in a small area of the US portion generated a population size of about 2,937 (range 1522–5944) when extrapolated to the entire region, making it the largest subpopulation in the Arctic (Regehr et al. 2018). Larger-than-average family groups were also found, corroborating previous studies indicating that CS bears were in good condition and reproducing very well.
However, it may be even larger than that. An aerial survey conducted by a joint Russian/American team in 2016 generated two abundance estimates: 3,435 (range 2,300–5,131), which unreasonably assumed no bears had been missed being sighted, and 5,444 (range 3,636–8,152), which assumed some bears were missed (Conn et al. 2021). The minimum estimate of 3,435 is slightly greater than the mark-recapture estimate but even the larger estimate of 5,444 is within its potential error range.
Given evidence that the region is providing abundant food and bears are reproducing extremely well, including a recent increase in numbers of bears counted on Wrangel Island (Ovsyanikov and Menyushina 2015), the larger estimate seems more plausible as an average for this subpopulation, although the authors of the report did not draw that conclusion.
While the Washington Post article quotes the 2021 PBSG population size estimate of 2,937 (PBSG 2021:52), this seems like an overly pessimistic assessment that gives little weight to evidence that reproduction and survival rates of polar bears in this region are more like those seen in a growing population.
Chakilev, M.V. and Kochnev, A.A. 2019. Monitoring results of the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) haulout site at Cape Serdtse-Kamen (Chukchi Sea) in 2016-2017. In, Marine Mammals of the Holarctic, Papers of the Tenth International Conference (29 October-2 November 2018), Volume 1, pg. 381-391. Marine Mammal Council, Moscow. [Russian and English]
Conn, P.B., Chernook, V.I., Moreland, E.E., et al. 2021. Aerial survey estimates of polar bears and their tracks in the Chukchi Sea. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251130. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251130
Crockford, S.J. 2022a. Sir David Attenborough and the Walrus Deception. Amazon KDP, Victoria.
Crockford, S.J. 2022b. The State of the Polar Bear 2021. Global Warming Policy Foundation Note 29, London. pdf here.
Crockford, S.J. 2023. The Polar Wildlife Report. Global Warming Policy Foundation Briefing 63, London. pdf here.
Fischbach, A.S., Kochnev, A.A., Garlich-Miller, J.L. and Jay, C.V. 2016. Pacific walrus coastal haulout database, 1852-2016 – Background Report. USGS Open-File Report 2016-1108. DOI: 10.3133/ofr20161108 PDF HERE, download here.
Fischbach, A.S., Taylor, R.L. and Jay, C.V. 2022. Regional walrus abundance estimate in the United States Chukchi Sea in autumn. Journal of Wildlife Management 86:e22256.
Frey, K.E., Comiso, J.C., Cooper, L.W., et al. 2022. Arctic Ocean primary productivity: the response of marine algae to climate warming and sea ice decline. In: 2022 Arctic Report Card, NOAA. https://doi.org/10.25923/0je1-te61MacCracken, J.G., Beatty, W.S., Garlich-Miller, J.L., et al. 2017. Final Species Status Assessment for the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). US Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska.
Ovsyanikov, N.G. and Menyushina, I. E. 2015. Demographic processes in Chukchi-Alaskan polar bear population as observed in Wrangel Island region. pg. 37–55, In: Marine Mammals of the Holarctic, Collection of Scientific Papers. Vol. 2. Moscow.
PGSG. 2021. ‘Status Report on the World’s Polar Bear Subpopulations at 31 July 2021’. IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, 3 December. https://www.iucn-pbsg.org/
Regehr, E.V., Hostetter, N.J., Wilson, R.R., et al. 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
Regehr, E.V., Laidre, K.L, Akçakaya, H.R., et al. 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 Supplementary data here.
Rode, K.D., Douglas, D.C., Atwood, T.C., et al. 2022. Observed and forecasted changes in land use by polar bears in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, 1985-2040. Global Ecology and Conservation 40: e02319. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02319
Rode, K.D., Olson, J., Eggett, D., et al. 2018. Den phenology and reproductive success of polar bears in a changing climate. Journal of Mammalogy 99(1):16-26. here.
Rode, K. D., Regehr, E.V., Bromaghin, J. F., et al. 2021. Seal body condition and atmospheric circulation patterns influence polar bear body condition, recruitment, and feeding ecology in the Chukchi Sea. Global Change Biology 27:2684–2701. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15572
USFWS. 2017a. ‘After Comprehensive Review, Service Determines Pacific Walrus Does Not Require Endangered Species Act Protection’. US Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release, 4 October.
USFWS. 2017b. ‘Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; 12-month findings on petitions to list 25 species as endangered or threatened species’. Federal Register 82(192):46618-46645.
Wilson, R.R., Regehr, E.V., Rode, K.D., and St. Martin, M. 2016. Invariant polar bear habitat selection during a period of sea ice loss. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283:20160380.