Category Archives: Conservation Status

The truth behind the Baffin Bay starving polar bear video is worse than we thought

Remember that video of an emaciated Baffin Island Somerset Island polar bear that went viral last December?1 In an unexpected follow-up (“Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong“; National Geographic, August 2018 issue), photographer Cristina Mittermeier makes some astonishing admissions that might just make you sick.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

It turns out they didn’t just come across the dying bear the day it was filmed: it was spotted at least two days earlier by Paul Nicklen. He must have had a satellite phone with him when he saw the bear but the only call he made was to his film crew — he made no attempt to find a local conservation officer to euthanize the bear, which would have been the right thing to do.

ADDED July 27 2018: Calling a conservation officer to euthanize the bear would have been the right thing to do not only out of compassion (and to know the cause of illness, because a necropsy would have been done), but because a starving bear is especially dangerous: it would have been a potential danger to any unsuspecting person who set foot on the island (he was strong enough to swim away, so was probably strong enough to kill a child, if not an adult).

The bear’s emaciated, near-death stagger2 was simply too tantalizing to pass up (video needs action: an emaciated dead bear would not been nearly as effective). Mittermeier claims they knew when they filmed the bear that he was sick or injured, but Nicklon presented it as an effect of climate change regardless. Mittermeier now says National Geographic simply “went too far” with their video caption (“This is what climate change looks like“), that she and Nicklan “lost control of the narrative.”

Actually, what they lost was their humanity.

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US FWS proposes changes to Endangered Species Act, polar bear champions panic

Headline run by The Independent last Friday (20 July 2018):

‘A death sentence for polar bears’: Trump administration seeks changes to endangered species protections: Conservation groups are already vowing to sue the Donald Trump administration if the revisions go into effect

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

Such over-the-top rhetoric is as predictable as puddles after a cloud-burst (see a statement by the WWF here, and the Center for Biological Diversity (source of the “death sentence for polar bears” claim here) but the proposed changes only apply to future listings, not listings already in place. See the USFWS press release below.

However, both The Independent and ABC News featured polar bears in their stories, a species listed as threatened in 2008.

It would be hard to beat the irony of ABC: it ran video of fat Kaktovik polar bears behind their anchor as he delivered the ESA story. The Independent not only used the “death sentence to polar bears” quote but included the video clip from last year of the dying Baffin Island bear even though it is very likey the bear was emaciated due to cancer rather than lack of food (Crockford 2018).

Why would anyone mention polar bears? Why is the Center for Biological Diversity so afraid?

Because if polar bears face a delisting challenge, the new rules apply.

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Hansen’s 1988 climate change testimony was the answer to Stirling’s polar bear problem

Last week’s media coverage made me realize that James Hansen’s testimony to a US Senate committee in 1988 provided well-timed answer to a vexatious problem facing polar bear biologist Ian Stirling. Thirty years ago, Stirling was struggling to understand why polar bear productivity in Western Hudson Bay had dropped.  He was ripe for the suggestion from Hansen (and his follow-up paper) that human-caused global warming could be the explanation. An interview with Stirling and colleague Andrew Derocher published in 2016 helps connect the dots.DA-IS-measuring_Ian Stirling

Many bears were in poor condition in the fall of 1983 (Calvert et al. 1986:19, 24; Ramsay and Stirling 1988). In general, the 1980s saw weights of bears decline and cub mortality increase, with a marked increase in the loss of whole litters over what had been documented in the 1960s and 1970s (Derocher and Stirling 1992, 1995).

Until Hansen and climate change came along,  density-dependent effects (such as the number of bears out-pacing food supply) were seen as the most likely explanation. But sea ice decline blamed on human-caused global warming was suddenly a new possibility that Stirling soon embraced (Stirling and Derocher 1993). By the late 1990s, sea ice coverage on Hudson Bay had indeed declined but the correlation with polar bear productivity produced a weak trend that was not statistically significant (Stirling et al. 1999).

The 1999 Stirling paper did not provide scientific evidence to explain the 1980s decline in productivity as much as it presented a novel scapegoat to blame when a more plausible explanation could not be made.

Bottom line: Global warming could not have been the proximate cause of the productivity changes in WH polar bears documented during the 1980s but Stirling spent the next two and a half decades vigorously pushing climate change as the cause of all polar bear ills. Continue reading

Wear white on the solstice to celebrate polar bear success in a warming world

Wednesday 21 June is the longest day of the year: wear something white tomorrow to acknowledge and celebrate the success of polar bears despite such low summer sea ice since 2007 that 2/3 of them were predicted to disappear.

white sunglasses

White hats

White tie, white shirt, white socks work too. Keep cool and signal to the world that you love outstanding survivors of climate change,  fat though they may be.

Cover image_Twenty Reasons_polarbearscience

Read here and here.

Global sea ice extent at 19 June 2018, well past the end of the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 June 19

Svalbard polar bear data 2016 through 2018 shows no impact of low ice years

Last week, the Norwegian Polar Institute updated their online data collected for the Svalbard area to include 2017 and 2018 — fall sea ice data and spring polar bear data. Older data for comparison go back to 1993 for polar bears and 1979 for sea ice, showing little to no impact of the reduced ice present since 2016 in late spring through fall.

Svalbard polar bear_NP015991-isbjorn-JA

Here’s what the introduction says, in part [my bold]:

“…The polar bear habitat is changing rapidly, and the Polar Basin could be ice-free in summer within a few years. Gaining access to preferred denning areas and their favourite prey, ringed seals, depends on good sea ice conditions at the right time and place. The population probably increased considerably during the years after hunting was banned in 1973, and new knowledge indicates that the population hasn’t been reduced the last 10-15 years, in spite of a large reduction in available sea ice in the same period.”

See Aars et al. 2017 for details on the 2015 Svalbard polar bear population count, keeping in mind that the subpopulation region is called “Barents Sea” for a reason: only a few hundred individuals currently stick close to Svalbard year round while most Barents Sea bears inhabit the pack ice around Franz Josef Land to the east (Aars et al. 2009; Crockford 2017, 2018).
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Environment Canada maps of polar bear population and status assessments 2018

Just out (6 June 2018) — new population assessment and status maps of the 19 polar bear subpopulations according to Environment Canada. Contrary to the map presented at the Range State meeting in February 2018 (pdf here), these maps show Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay (along with the Southern Beaufort) as “likely declined.” A new category has been added for the Barents Sea: it’s considered “data deficient/uncertain,” but a population estimate of 2,001-3,000 has been provided.

No press release or other notice regarding the availability of these new maps was issued, as far as I know: I came across them by accident while looking for something else.

Global pb status and population map EC 2018

Global map above, more below, including a comparative map that shows 2010, 2014, and 2018 together. I will update the two recent posts of mine (here and here) that used the February Range State map with the information that more recently revised maps are now available.

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Critical evidence on W Hudson Bay polar bears still not published after 25 years

Polar bear researchers have been doing capture/recapture studies in Western Hudson Bay for decades yet most of the data claimed to be critical for assessing effects of human-caused global warming on this species have not been published. I raised this point in one of my early blog posts (27 Sept 2012) but the situation has not changed in 6 years. Here’s an update.

Derocher in the field in WH_CBC story 2016

From CBC story 14 Sept 2016.

Years ago now, in an oft-cited paper, Stirling and Derocher (2012) claimed to summarize the evidence that climate warming was negatively impacting polar bear health and survival. Several life history parameters were considered crucial, particularly body condition.

Despite almost a dozen papers (and perhaps more) on various aspects of WH polar bear health and life history studies based on capture/recapture data published since 2004  (e.g. Castro de la Guardia 2017; Lunn et al. 2016; Pilfold et al. 2017), none have reported the body condition data that supposedly support the claim that sea ice loss is having a severe impact — and the same is true for litter size, proportion of independent yearlings, and cub survival.1

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