Category Archives: Conservation Status

Good news: Gulf of Boothia and M’Clintock Channel polar bear survey results

Final reports for two Canadian subpopulations reveal the number of polar bears in M’Clintock Channel has more than doubled since 2000 while Gulf of Boothia as remained about the same despite moderate declines in summer sea ice cover. All of the survey results were published online yesterday (16 November 2020) and I was alerted to the posting this morning via email by a Nunavut employee.

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Shorefast ice formation and the fall feeding season for polar bears

What may seem like a silly question is actually fundamental to polar bear survival: in the fall, why do Western Hudson Bay bears correctly expect to find seals in the new ice that forms offshore? Why are seals attracted to that new ice – called ‘shorefast ice’ or ‘fast ice’ – when they would clearly be safer out in the open water where there is no ice and no bears?

As the picture below attests, polar bears can and do kill ringed seals in the new ice that forms off the coast of Western Hudson Bay even when it is but a narrow strip of thin ice – and so close to shore their successes can be caught on camera.

Three adult male polar bears share a seal kill on the newly-formed ice off Wapusk National Park, Western Hudson Bay. 5 November 2020. Buggy cam, Explore.org

A different bear was also filmed killing another seal on 31 October. And these are only the kills we know about along a very short stretch of coast – the killing is almost certainly going on up and down the entire coast, into James Bay (see below), where there is just as much ice but no cameras.

As far as I am aware, this seal killing by polar bears goes on in newly-formed shorefast ice everywhere across the Arctic in early fall, not just in Hudson Bay. Although the timing varies, virtually everywhere in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Ocean (Barents, Kara, Laptev, Chukchi, Beaufort, as well as Baffin Bay and Davis Strait), shorefast ice forms before the mobile ice pack expands to meet the ice developing from shore.

This shorefast ice formation in fall provides a predictable but short-lived source of prey for polar bears as they strive to regain some of the weight lost over the summer.

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Western & Southern Hudson Bay polar bears experience earliest freeze-up in decades

This is shaping up to be one of the shortest ice-free seasons in at least 20 years for both Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears.

Hudson Bay sea ice at 2 November 2020. NSIDC Masie chart.

Last week, sea ice started forming along the shore of Hudson Bay, from the north end all the way south into James Bay. So far, the shorefast ice that’s forming is only a narrow strip along the coast but is thickening and becoming broader each day, which means that unless something changes dramatically, the bears should all be on the ice at the end of the week, an exodus from shore that hasn’t happened this early in WH since 1993 (the earliest since 1979).

The last WH tagged polar bear didn’t leave the ice this year until 21 August, which means if it’s on the ice by the end of this week it will have spent only 11 weeks onshore – less than 3 months. Even the first bears that came ashore in mid-July will have only spent about 16 weeks on land – at least a month less than they did a decade ago (Stirling and Derocher 2012). Four months spent ashore was the historical average for Western Hudson Bay bears in the 1970s and 1980s (Stirling et al. 1977, 1999). This year, most polar bears will have spent only about 13-14 weeks on land because they did not come ashore until early August.

UPDATE 8 November 2020: Report from Churchill area polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson, via Facebook Saturday 7 November: “Most bears have left on the ice – including peanut – but still some stragglers” [Peanut’ is a well-known female who has two cubs this year]. See below for sea ice chart for 8 November shows broadening band of grey ice clearly thick enough to support the weight of adult bears (and the same thing is happening in Southern Hudson Bay):

Hudson Bay North daily stage of development 2020 Nov 8_all grey ice

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S. Beaufort polar bear population stable since 2010 not declining new report reveals

A just-released report on the latest count for the Alaska portion of the Southern Beaufort subpopulation reveals that numbers have been stable since 2010 despite claims the population has continued to decline. However, the study also has a very odd feature: 2012 had the highest population estimate over the decade of 2006-2015 yet also had the lowest survival of all age classes since 2001.

Healthy polar bear male at Kaktovik, Alaska on the Southern Beaufort Sea, September 2019, Ed Boudreau photo, with permission.

However, what is essentially good news about polar bear health and survival in the Southern Beaufort has so far been glossed over by the media because the report prominently includes estimates of polar bear dens on land in areas of potential oil exploration, a highly politicized topic. Accordingly, the Washington Post (picked up by other outlets) focused a statement in the paper that “long-term persistence of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) is threatened by sea-ice loss due to climate change” and on the denning issue rather than the new population count.  As far as I am aware, no other population estimate report has included such distracting information.

Recent claim of a polar bear expert [my bold]:

In 2015…the polar bear population in the Beaufort Sea had declined by 40% over the previous decade. “We can only anticipate that those declines have continued.” Steven Amstrup, 29 September 2019.

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Polar bear researchers try very hard to make good news in Kane Basin sound trivial

In an astonishing display of under-selling good news, the authors of a new paper announcing that Kane Basin polar bears are doing well have avoided mentioning that the population increased substantially since the 1990s and insist that any benefits will be short-lived.

Kane Basin population size at 2013 was 357 (range 221 – 493), up from 224 (range 145 – 303) in 1997. That’s an increase of 59% based on a 2016 recalculation of the 1997 population estimate of 164 (Crockford 2020) – it would have been a 118% increase otherwise.

Money quote: “We find that a small number of the world’s polar bears that live in multiyear ice regions are temporarily benefiting from climate change.” Kristen Laidre, lead author of Transient benefits of climate change for a high‐Arctic polar bear (Ursus maritimus) subpopulation

Both the paper and the press release also claim, despite acknowledging that there is no evidence for this conclusion (“the duration of these benefits is unknown“), that this good news will probably not last because computer models say beneficial conditions might not persist beyond the end of the century.

As always, if you’d like to see this paper, use the ‘contact me’ page to request a copy (it’s paywalled).

UPDATE 25 September 2020: News just out from Nunavut this morning, “New Nunavut polar bear surveys point to “currently healthy” populations in M’Clintock Channel and Boothia Bay.” The survey report for M’Clintock Channel (mentioned in the post below) and neighbouring Gulf of Bothia has still not been made public but this announcement suggests that population numbers in these subpopulations have also increased by some amount that will be similarly discounted as unimportant.

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Potential impact of the second-lowest sea ice minimum since 1979 on polar bear survival

The annual summer sea ice minimum in the Arctic has been reached and while the precise extent has not yet been officially determined, it’s clear this will be the ‘second lowest’ minimum (after 2012) since 1979. However, as there is no evidence that polar bears were harmed by the 2012 ‘lowest’ summer sea ice this year’s ‘second-lowest’ is unlikely to have any negative effect.

This is not surprising since even 2nd lowest leaves summer ice coverage in the Arctic at the level sea ice experts wrongly predicted in 2005 wouldn’t be seen until 2050 (ACIA 2005; Amstrup et al. 2007; Wang and Overland 2012) and this is the same amount of summer sea ice that polar bear experts incorrectly predicted would cause 2/3 of all polar bears to disappear. My book explains how it all went wrong: The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened

In this summary of how polar bears have been doing since the the lowest sea ice minimum in 2012, I show that contrary to all predictions, polar bears have been thriving despite reduced summer ice in the Barents, Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Seas, and because of unexpectedly short ice-free seasons in Hudson Bay and less multiyear ice in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

UPDATE 21 September (10:20 PT): NSIDC has just announced the Arctic sea ice extent minimum (preliminary) for 2020 at 3.74 mkm2 reached on 15 September. See full report here.

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Sceptical covid-19 research and sceptical polar bear science: is there a difference?

This essay about medical researchers having trouble getting their papers published because the results don’t support the official pandemic narrative has disturbing parallels with my experience trying to inject some balance into the official polar bear conservation narrative.1 Especially poignant is the mention of models built on assumptions sold as ‘facts’ that fail once data (i.e. evidence) become available – which of course is the entire point of my latest book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened.

Read the commentary below, copied from Lockdownsceptics.org (6 September 2020). Bold in original, link added to the story to which this is a response, and brief notes and links added as footnotes for parallels with polar bear conservation science. Continue reading

Criminal charges dropped in case of polar bear shot by cruise ship guards in 2018

The guards from a cruise ship who shot an emaciated bear in self-defense in late July 2018 on the remote island of Phippsøya in northern Svalbard have had criminal charges against them dropped. It is illegal to kill polar bears in Norway, so the death of the bear automatically triggered a criminal investigation.

 

Polar bear shot in self defense on the island of Phippsøya in the Sjuoyene group north of Spitzbergen 28 July 2018 by guards from a cruise ship, photo courtesy Govenor of Svalbard.

This case, which made international headlines and sparked outrage at the time, also saw charges laid against the cruise ship that employed the guards. However, all charges against the company have also been dropped. See below for details on the decision and my post about the incident in 2018. No information on the condition of the bear was included in the statement about criminal charges.

 

Phippsøya is part of the Sjuoyene island group in northern Svalbard.

 

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Amid crying over low Arctic ice, W Hudson Bay polar bears leave ice as late as 2009

This year, the last collared Western Hudson Bay polar bear to leave the ice left as late, or later, than the last collared bear did in 2009 (which was an unusually late breakup year) and so far, all bears spotted have been in good physical condition despite inhabiting one of the most southern regions of the Arctic. All the while, sea ice experts have been hand-wringing about low Arctic sea ice –– in general and as polar bear habitat.

Polar bear Cape East 0 Wakusp NP _24 Aug 2020 earlier

A female with two yearling cubs on the shore of Wakusp National Park, Western Hudson Bay on 24 August 2020. Taken via livecam from almost a mile away.

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Risk to Alaskan polar bear cubs from oil exploration in coastal Wildlife Refuge is small

A bill recently introduced to US Congress (30 July 2020) is supposedly meant to “safeguard the Beaufort Sea polar bear’s denning habitat”.  However, the bill is named the “Polar Bear Cub Survival Act”, which tells us this is an appeal to emotions rather than a call for rational decision-making. In fact, few Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear cubs are born on land in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the risks to them from oil exploration is not overwhelming.

Amstrup_only solution_with 3 cubs_Oct 8 2014

Despite a modest decline in summer sea ice since 1979, only about half of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear females currently make their dens on the sea ice in late fall. Recent research confirms results from older studies that show denning females in Alaska are highly tolerant of the kind of disturbance associated with oil exploration and few dens are found more than about 1 km from the shore. This emotion-laden bill is not really about protecting polar bears: it’s a political move aimed at preventing oil exploration along the coast of Alaska after previous efforts failed. It comes ahead of an announcement today (18 August 2020) that the White House will begin to auction off leases for oil drilling in the ANWR.

Don’t let the ‘trust my word, I’m an expert’ hyperbolic testimony from activist scientists like Steven Amstrup and others hold sway on this issue – see for example Alaska polar bear den disturbances part of ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ researcher says (biologist Wesley Larson on Alaska Public Radio, 14 July 2020), or activist conservation organizations Polar Bears International and World Wildlife Fund. Have a look at the facts on the matter taken from the published literature, which I summarize below (as many pdfs provided as possible).

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