‘Less ice means more conflicts with polar bears’ narrative not supported by scientific evidence

In another failed prediction, a new study on the number of polar bears killed in self-defense in Svalbard, Norway did not find the expected correlation with lack of sea ice or more tourists (Vongraven et al. 2023). Contrary to expectations, fewer bears were actually killed in self-defence as sea ice declined between 1987 and 2019.

Money Quote from the abstract:

   “…ice cover had no significant impact on the odds for a [polar bear] kill.”

It seems the warning from polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher a few months ago was just plain wrong:

“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]

Vongraven et al. 2023, Figure 4A, number of polar bears killed in self-defence 1987-2019.

From the Discussion section of the Vongraven paper (pg. 9), my bold:

More bears on land for longer periods during which more people were accessing the same habitats could have been expected to increase the number of bear-human interactions, and the number of bears killed in defence of life and property. Despite a positive relationship between number of tourists and number of kills at a given time, the total numbers of bears killed did not increase over the years of the study and per-capita kills strongly declined. … This overall reduction in kills, despite greatly reduced sea ice habitat availability and more polar bears spending more time on land, may reflect success of the Svalbard Environmental Act of 2001.”

Nice save there, at the end. Hey, this wasn’t a failure of our prediction that loss of sea ice due to global warming would cause more polar bears to be killed because they attacked people, it’s a resounding victory for a law prohibiting people “seeking out” polar bears! As noted in the next two sentences:

“This act prohibits people from “luring, pursuing or otherwise seeking out polar bears in such a way as to disturb them or expose either bears or humans to danger” (Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, 2001). These requirements may make visitors more cautious and result in human behaviours that make lethal conflicts between humans and bears less likely.”

I wonder why polar bear researchers hadn’t considered this option before they started harping about lack of ice (Abrahms et al. 2023: Atwood and Wilder 2021; Rode et al. 2022; Wilder et al. 2017)? Odd, that.

I note with interest that this law appears not to have saved the bear that died in August 2020 (the year after this study concluded). The bear that died was not responding to being harassed by people but was shot because he killed a person sleeping in a tent in the early hours of a Svalbard morning.

Bottom line: This result by veteran polar bear researchers blows a big hole in the emerging narrative nudging the public to expect more polar bear attacks and problem incidents with less sea ice. They want people to forget about their failed prediction from a few years ago that declining ice would mean declining numbers (Crockford 2917, 2019) and focus on their new boogeyman. Sadly for them, it appears that a big component of their new prediction is also wrong.


Abrahms, B., Carter, N.H., Clark-Wolf, T.J., et al. 2023. Climate change as a global amplifier of human–wildlife conflict. Nature Climate Change 13:224-234. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01608-5

Atwood, T.C., and Wilder, J.M. 2021. Human-polar bear interactions. In Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Sea Otters and Polar Bears, Davis, R.W. and Pagano, A.M. (eds.), p. 325-353. Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals Series, Springer, Cham.  https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-66796-2_17 And for the entire book, free to download: https://ebin.pub/ethology-and-behavioral-eco logy-of-sea-otters-and-polar-bears-3030667952-9783030667955.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/

Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

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 See also press release https://www.usgs.gov/news/state-news-release/without-sea-ice-more-polar-bears-spend-time-onshore-increasing-potential

Vongraven, D., Amstrup, S.C., McDonald, T.L., et al. 2023. Relating polar bears killed, human presence, and ice conditions in Svalbard 1987-2019. bioRxiv [preprint] https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.03.17.533082

Wilder, J.M., Vongraven, D., Atwood, T., et al. 2017. Polar bear attacks on humans: implications of a changing climate. Wildlife Society Bulletin 41(3):537-547.  https://doi.org/10.1002/wsb.783

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