Category Archives: Conservation Status

Now at least 10 years with sea ice at 2050-like levels yet polar bears are still abundant

We’ve hit the seasonal Arctic sea ice minimum for this year, called this morning by US NSIDC for 19th and 23rd of Septmeber: 4.59 mkm2, the same extent as 2008 and 2010. This is not a “ho-hum” year for polar bears: it means that since 2007, they have triumphed through 10 or 11 years1 with summer ice coverage below 5.0 mkm2 —  levels that in 2007 were expected to cause catastrophic declines in numbers.

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Summer sea ice below 5.0 mkm2 were not expected to occur until about 2050, according to 2005/2006 sea ice models and polar bear specialists at the US Geological Survey (USGS). Polar bear survival models predicted 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would disappear when ice levels reached this threshold for 8 out of 10 years (Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Hunter 2007) but polar bears have been more resilient than expected (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018). In fact, in many areas (like the Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea and Foxe Basin) polar bears are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice coverage (Aars et al. 2017; ACSWG 2018; Peacock et al. 2013; Regehr et al. 2016; Stapleton et al. 2016).

The sea ice models used to support the addition of polar bears to the US Endangered Species List as ‘threatened’ with extinction suggested sea ice levels from 3-5 mkm2 would not occur unti mid-century, yet they dropped before the ink was dry on the 2007 USGS Reports (ACIA 2005; Hassol 2004; Holland et al. 2006; Solomon et al. 2007; Zhang and Walsh 2006).

The ice extent charts from the University of Bremen (below) show ice that’s 50% concentration or greater at the date of the seasonal minimum (19th September): what polar bear specialists define as preferred habitat (Amstrup et al. 2007).

arctic_amsr2_visual_2018_sept_19.png

Compare the minimum shown above to the coverage predicted for 2050 and to coverage at the minimum in 2012 (the NSIDC image is here):

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The politics of starving polar bears: my op-ed in the National Post last week

In case you missed it: The real story behind the famous starving polar-bear video reveals more manipulation (29 August 2018).

Chukchi Sea polar bear Arctic_early August 2018_A Khan NSIDC

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Chukchi Sea polar bears number almost 3000 according to new survey results

The Chukchi Sea finally has a polar bear population estimate! According to survey results from 2016 only recently made public, about 2937 bears (1522-5944) currently inhabit the region, making this the largest subpopulation in the Arctic. This is exciting news — and a huge accomplishment — but the US Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the work has been oddly mum on the topic.

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Not only that, but an extrapolation of that estimate calculated by USFWS researchers for Chukchi plus Alaska (the US portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation) was estimated at 4437 (2283-9527), although with “significant uncertainty.” Nevertheless, it means the 2016 estimate for Alaska could be roughly three times what it was in 2010: a whopping 1500 or so, up from about 450 (or about 225-650) for the same area estimated during the last survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015: Fig. 5a).

Even if the real number for Alaska is only twice as large (~1000), that’s still a huge improvement. It would eliminate the Southern Beaufort as the only polar bear subpopulation in the Arctic to have shown a significant decline blamed on human-caused global warming (Crockford 2018). If the recovery is real, it means the 2004-2006 decline was a temporary fluctuation after all, just like previous declines in the region. I expect, however, that it will take a dedicated SB population survey for officials to concede that point.

There is not yet a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. in prep), but the numbers were announced at the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears held at the end of July this year (AC SWG 2018) by Eric Regehr (formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as of 2017 at the University of Washington). [h/t to G.H.] This was the same report that raised the quota for subsistence hunting in the Chukchi from 58 to 85, based on these new figures, as I discussed last week.

Wrangel Island polar bear with cubs 2015 news story

From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.

Regehr was quoted as saying:

“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.”

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White Lie: Polar bear starvation is virtually never caused by sea ice loss

Starvation due to natural causes is the leading cause of death for polar bears and loss of body condition (getting thinner) is therefore the first symptom of impending death for virtually all polar bears that die naturally. However, polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher claims that loss of body condition is also the first symptom of climate change for polar bears.

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But how do you tell the difference between polar bears made thin by man-made climate change and those who are thin due to natural causes?

You can’t. Even a necropsy will not be conclusive because there are so many natural reasons for a bear to lose weight — and even starve to death — that’s it’s virtually impossible to say that any thin bear is skinny due to a lack of sea ice.

Emaciated polar bears like the one above from Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic,1 captured on camera in August 2017, are being used to promote the idea that polar bears are already dying of starvation due to climate change. That’s a big white lie, as the headline above suggests: seven months later, National Geographic has admitted as much. Here I show why it could not have been true in the first place (with references from the scientific literature).

UPDATE: 29 August 2018: See my op-ed in the National Post (29 August 2018) and the GWPF video below on this issue:

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Facts contradict predictions that Chukchi Sea polar bears should be in trouble

Last fall, there were persistent alarms raised about low levels of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea that were echoed this spring. But these low ice levels are not really a serious concern for these polar bears: a 2018 assessment found the bears were in excellent health with no declines in cub production or survival. Funny how little we hear about that.

Wrangel Island polar bear with cubs 2015 news story

From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.

See a photo essay of Wrangel Island here and of the islands polar bears here and here.

You also don’t hear about the fact that sea ice has declined by about the same amount in the Chukchi Sea as in Western Hudson Bay. Since 1979, sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has declined at a rate similar to Western Hudson Bay (-0.90 days per year vs. -0.86 days per year, respectively), see graphs below from Regehr et al. (2016, Fig. 2):

Regher et al. 2016 fig 2 Barents and Chukchi Sea ice declineRegher et al. 2016 fig 2 Wh Bay ice decline

While Western Hudson Bay bear numbers have declined slightly in number (by a non-statistically significant amount) and appear to have suffered some recent declines in cub survival (Dyck et al. 2017) (with unsubstantiated claims of declines in adult body condition), Chukchi Sea bears have not (Rode and Regehr 2010; Rode et al. 2013, 2014, 2018).

The fact that Chukchi bears are thriving while Western Hudson Bay bears appear to be struggling, given almost identical trends in sea ice decline, is a connundrum that polar bear specialist are loath to explain.

Only last week, it was announced that the quota for subsistence hunting of Chukchi Sea polar bears had been raised from 58 to 85 due to the excellent status of the population. Polar bear biologist Eric Regehr was quoted as saying:

“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.”

So, despite warnings from the polar bear and sea ice “experts” that Chukchi Sea bears may be in dire straits due to recent sea ice declines (see below), it appears that the bears themselves are more resilient to changing conditions than the experts give them credit.

NSIDC sea ice experts cruising the Chukchi Sea took this photo of a polar bear in excellent condition a couple of weeks ago (early August 2018, A. Khan), despite the scary-looking melt ponds:

Chukchi Sea polar bear Arctic_early August 2018_A Khan NSIDC

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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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