Category Archives: Conservation Status

Why is polar bear conservation such a contentious issue?

Are polar bears in decline or not? Who is to blame for the fact that there is no clear answer about how polar bears are doing? Apparently, everyone except polar bear specialists are at fault for the way polar bear issues have been handled in recent years (including me), at least according to one northern journalist.

UpHere Magazine_July 2016 cover cropped

Back in February, I wrote a rather critical review of an exclusive interview with polar bear researcher Ian Stirling that was published in the February issue of UpHere Magazine called, He speaks for the polar bears – with this lede under the title:

“No fear-mongering. No exaggeration. For Ian Stirling, it’s purely about the science.”

I said “Yeah, well – judge for yourself,” and pointed out some rather critical inaccuracies and obfuscations in Stirling’s answers that I backed up with references.

Well, the editor of that magazine, Tim Edwards, emailed me a few days later and said:

“...we wanted to try to clarify the issues and just talk hard science, no rhetoric. Lo and behold, we’re learning that even his opinion is by no means universally agreed-upon. So thank you for your criticism.”

In May, I was contacted by UpHere writer Dan Campbell, who spoke to me several times before writing this month’s article (15 July 2016), Lost in the numbers: The polar bear is getting more attention than ever, but that may be harming the animal more than helping. Have a look and decide if it clarifies any of the polar bear issues for you. Continue reading

Sea ice habitat Canada update for 23 July 2016 vs. 2014 & the start of bear problems

Sea ice breakup is always a little bit different year to year but since I have the maps archived, take a look at the differences and similarities at this date for this year compared to 2014…

Sea ice extent Canada 2016 July 23_CIS

Sea ice extent Canada 2014 July 23 CIS

Is there evidence that any polar bears – say Western Hudson Bay bears, for example – were negatively affected by sea ice levels in 2014? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, quite the opposite.

Polar bear guide and blogger Kelsey Eliasson, writing from Churchill, Manitoba, had this to say about the condition of bears and freeze-up that year (16 Nov. 2014):

“With these families appearing [heading out to the ice], it really sums up at just what a productive season this has been for the western Hudson Bay population. Any guide who knows their stuff will tell you this was a banner year for cubs, one we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Meanwhile, bears are starting to come ashore and cause a bit of grief:

Southern Hudson Bay (two days ago): “Polar bear shot after wandering through Kashechewan” [see map below for location: the bear shot was a cub that appears to have been separated from its mother and sibling, who were spotted several km away not causing any trouble]

Iqaliut, Baffin Island (this morning): “Polar bear rips 6 tents pitched in Iqaluit park”

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USGS polar bear researchers publish their rebuttal to 2015 IUCN Red List assessment

Surprise! US Geological Survey polar bear specialists have just published another opinion-based model that concludes – yet again – that there is no hope for polar bears of the future unless the world drastically reduces fossil fuel use. This appears to be the Amstrup-led rebuttal to the hated 2015 IUCN Red List polar bear assessment I have been expecting, written in tandem with the Red List document by two of the same co-authors (Steve Amstrup and Todd Atwood).

Kaktovik female w cub_21 September 2015 USDA_med

Really, no surprises here – just more of the same overwrought fear-mongering about polar bears that we’ve been hearing from USGS since 2007. I saw Atwood and Amstrup last week in a British-made TV film that expressed the same sentiments (The Great Polar Bear Feast – it oddly featured dozens of fat/very fat Kaktovik polar bears while mostly USGS ‘experts’ talked about impending starvation). On camera, Atwood and Amstrup were almost indistinguishable in their statements of doom, and even though the film aired 6 months ago in the UK, it has so far not garnered the angst it seems to have intended.

Some folks may be even more convinced than ever by this new PR strategy [TV movie plus a published paper] that the polar bears are all going to die unless we (not they) change our wicked ways and stop using fossil fuels, but chances are that many more will detect the desperation in their escalated pitch and continue to refuse to buy what they are so frantically trying to sell.

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BREAKING: DNA results prove so-called polar bear hybrid was a blonde grizzly

All the hubris last month about polar bear x grizzly hybrids, based on an unusual-looking bear killed near Arviat, has turned out to be wishful thinking by those who’d like to blame everything to do with polar bears on climate change. An awful lot of “experts” now have egg on their faces. That “hybrid” was just a blonde grizzly, as I warned it might.

grizzly-polar-bear-hybrid_Arviat 2016 Didji Ishalook

According to one report, Nunavut wildlife manager Mathieu Dumond said:

“Some otherwise pretty renown bear biologists jumped on the hybrid bear story without even knowing what they were talking about,” Dumond said.

“I think it was something blown out of proportion, with the wrong information to start.”

Gee, ya think? CBC ran a story too. But the CBC don’t really admit (see below) that they were the first out of the gate on this story and started the media madness. It was the CBC that relied on the opinion of a black bear expert from Minnesota (who likely only saw a picture) – but since he was willing to say it was a hybrid and that its presence was a sign of climate change, they went with it.  See “Grolar or pizzly? Experts say rare grizzly-polar bear hybrid shot in Nunavut: Expert says interbreeding may be happening more frequently due to climate change” (CBC 18 May 2016).

For background, see these recent posts on this putative hybrid and the issues on hybridization it spawned:
Another alleged grizzly-polar bear hybrid shot but it’s not a sign of climate change

Polar bear hybrid update: samples sent for DNA testing to rule out blonde grizzly

Five facts that challenge polar bear hybridization nonsense

Most polar bear hybrids said to exist have not been confirmed by DNA testing

Blonde grizzlies, like the one pictured below (which I posted the day the story broke), are actually a proven sign of natural variation within species – a critical lesson in biology that should be the take-home message here. [ADDED: 2007 Alaska Fish & Wildlife Service Newsletter article on colour variation in black and brown/grizzly bears. h/t Wayne D]

“Paging Professor Derocher”: PBSG biologist and University of Alberta professor Andrew Derocher gave so many interviews to the media on this issue I lost count – he fed the media frenzy almost single-handedly. Well, except for granddaddy of polar bear experts Ian Stirling, who said (via the Toronto Star):

“I think it’s 99 per cent sure that it’s going to turn out to be a hybrid,” said Ian Stirling, an emeritus research scientist with Environment Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta.”

 

Grizzly light_NPS photo

Quotes from today’s story below.
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Terrestrial food fight amongst polar bear researchers reflects political differences

With a few big guns on one side and some fringe folk on the other, a dichotomy of opinion has developed amongst polar bear researchers regarding whether or not consumption of land-based foods is making a difference to polar bear survival (or is likely to in the future).

Polar bears eating terrest foods WHB_Rockwell press release

It’s been going on for a while now. Last year, two US Geological Survey members of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) apparently got fed up with the scatter-shot of papers promoting terrestrial foods as a possible salvation for polar bears (e.g. Iles et al. 2013;  Iverson et al. 2014; Rockwell and Gormezano 2013a, 2013b). In April, they published a canon volley of a paper meant to blow all that ‘polar-bears-might-survive’ talk out of the water once and for all (Rode et al. 2015).

Note that although the PBSG didn’t bother to update their website with the IUCN Red List assessment when it came out last November, they had a link up to the USGS terrestrial feeding paper within 16 days (with an editorial summary in the “NEWS” section as well as a listing of the paper in the “RECOMMENDED READING” section). As I suggest below, this difference in treatment may not be a coincidence.

However, another group of non-PBSG researchers  haven’t given up just yet, as shown by the title chosen for the most recent news report (Alaska Dispatch News, 16 June 2016) on the just-finished International Bear Conference:

Want to know how a changing climate is affecting polar bears? Look at what they’re eating.

Apparently, Jeff Welker, a University of Alaska Anchorage researcher who is co-author on two recent papers on the subject of polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods (Tartu et al. 2016 and Rogers et al. 2015), gave a presentation at the conference that raised this topic yet again. His talk came on the heels of an earlier presentation by Todd Atwood, who suggested Southern Beaufort polar bears might benefit from staying onshore to eat left-over whale scraps instead of staying on the sea ice during the summer (even though he had no data to support that opinion – as I discussed in this post).

Here’s the question: is this dispute really about what polar bears eat or don’t eat when they’re on land – or is it symptomatic of the underlying politics of polar bears? [CBC documentary video by that name here]
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PBSG failure to acknowledge 2015 IUCN polar bear update drives the public here

It is now past the 15 June 2016 mark and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) has still not acknowledged the 2015 IUCN Red List update on the status of polar bears. See the screencap below, taken this morning.

PBSG at 16 June 2016

This notice has been up since 14 January 2016 and no reference or link to the November 2015 IUCN Red List update has been posted, even though PBSG members authored the report (pdf here)!

What they may not realize is that their silence just drives people who search the internet looking for up-to-date population and conservation status info on polar bears to this site. My posts on population size and conservation status have been the most popular posts since November.

It’s that kind of attention that has made this site so popular: PolarBearScience will reach 750,000 views within the next couple of weeks (see “Blog Stats” lower right) – that’s right, 3/4 million views in less than four years. More than 400,000 readers have come here since the end of July 2012 to find out what’s really going on in the world of polar bears. Continue reading

Some inconvenient polar bear facts supported by scientific literature

The evidence that polar bears have not been harmed by recent declines in sea ice is contained in the scientific literature, no matter what some researchers say when they talk to the media.

USGS w_polarbearscience_caption 2016

Here’s a few of those facts (not all, by any means), with the references to back them up:
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