New Scientist has an article coming out next week takes a fairly reasoned approach to the polar bear conservation issue. It acknowledges that polar bear numbers have not declined in recent years even though summer sea ice dropped dramatically but goes on to perpetuate a number of myths that might not have happened if the author had done his homework or quizzed his other experts as thoroughly as he did me.
The survivors: is climate change really killing polar bears? Rapid global warming is said to be ringing the death knell for polar bears, by melthing their icy hunting grounds. But the reality is more complex. Fred Pearce, New Scientist 10 February 2018. Online now.
Posted in Conservation Status, Hybridization, Population, Sea ice habitat
Tagged climate change, conservation, extinction, global warming, grizzly, grolar, hungry, hybrid, Pearse, pizzly, polar bear, population size, sea ice, starving, survivors
The really significant content of a new paper being heavily-hyped by the media1 is what wasn’t said rather than what the authors discovered about metabolic rates and weight maintenance of a small sample of nine Southern Beaufort Sea bears in 2014 to 2016 (Pagano et al. 2018; Whiteman 2018).
This paper does not document starving or dying bears but merely found some (5/9) that lost weight when they should have been gaining, given that early April is the start of the ringed seal pupping season (Smith 1987) and the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears (Stirling et al. 1981).
The question is, why were Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears off Prudhoe Bay (see map of the study area below), still hunting and capturing only adult and subadult ringed seals from sea ice leads when newborn ringed seal pups and their mothers should have been plentiful and relatively easily available in their birth lairs on the sea ice (see below)?
“Using video collar data, we documented bears’ hunting behavior and foraging success. Bears used sit-and-wait tactics to hunt seals 90% of the time, and stalking comprised the remaining 10% of hunts (movies S1 to S4) (19). Bears that successfully killed and ate adult or subadult ringed seals either gained or maintained body mass, whereas bears that only scavenged or showed no evidence of eating lost mass.”
There was no discussion in the paper of ringed seal birth lairs, or sea ice conditions at the time of the study, but several mentions about what might happen in the future to sea ice and potential consequences for polar bears. The press release did the same.
However, as you’ll see by the sea ice thickness maps below, there may be good reason for the lack of ringed seal lairs, and a general lack of seals except at the nearshore lead that forms because of tidal action: the ice just a bit further offshore ice looks too thick for a good crop of ringed seals in all three years of the study. This is reminiscent of conditions that occurred with devastating results in the mid-1970s and mid-2000s (Burns et al. 1975; Cherry et al. 2009; Harwood et al. 2012, 2015; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002, Stirling et al. 1987). Those events affected primarily bears in the eastern half of the Southern Beaufort and were almost certainly responsible for the recorded decline in SB bear numbers in the 2001-2010 survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015; Crockford 2017; Crockford and Geist 2018).
It seems very odd to me that Pagano and colleagues suggested no reasons for the unexpectedly poor showing of polar bear hunting success during their study except a bit of hand-waving about higher-than-we-thought metabolic rates in the bears. For years, I’ve worried that the inevitable next episodes of thick Southern Beaufort spring ice would cause problems for polar bears and seals but we wouldn’t know it because whatever effects were documented would be blamed on reduced summer ice: I suspect that time may have come.
Figure 1 from Pagano et al. 2018 cropped to show only the study area off Alaska.
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Beaufort Sea, climate change, global warming, polar bear, sea ice, starving, struggling, survival, threatened, trouble, USGS, wasting, worse than we thought
Optimism in conservation science — which the Smithsonian says we desperately need (Earth Optimism Summit 21-23 April 2017, apparently a huge success) — means it’s time to acknowledge and celebrate real conservation success stories. The Smithsonian folks probably won’t say it but I will — one of those successes is the recovery of polar bears.
It’s time to abandon the focus on prophesies of impending loss and accept that recovery of polar bears from the over-hunting of last century has continued despite a decade of low summer sea ice (Aars et al. 2017; Crockford 2017; Dyck et al. 2017; SWG 2016; York et al. 2016). Why not focus on the numerous images of fat, healthy bears rather than the anomalous starving ones?
It’s time to let go of imagined future catastrophes based on pessimistic failures of adaptation (Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Atwood et al. 2016; Stirling and Derocher 2012) and acknowledge that polar bears and Arctic seals, just like Pacific walrus (MacCracken et al. 2017; US Fish & Wildlife Service 2017), are resilient species with adaptive capabilities we are are only just beginning to comprehend (Crawford and Quakenbush 2013; Crawford et al. 2015; Escajeda et al. 2018; Rode et al. 2014; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1975a; Vibe 1965). Continue reading
Posted in Conservation Status, Summary
Tagged abundance, conservation, facts, observations, optimism, populations, save the polar bear, science, sea ice, success, walrus
Tales of doom and gloom about polar bears reflect what some people think might happen in the future, not what is happening right now. Currently, polar bears are doing just fine despite the low summer sea ice coverage they’ve experienced since 2007 (Crockford 2017a; York et al. 2016). In other words, there has been no global population decline as predicted: officially, the numbers were 22,000-31,000 (or 26,500 average) in 2015 (Wiig et al. 2015) but about 28,500 when estimates published since then are included (Aars et al. 2017; Dyck et al. 2017; Matishov et al. 2014; SWG 2016), up from about 22,500 in 2005).
This increase might not be statistically significant but it is most assuredly not the decrease in abundance that was predicted by ‘experts’ such as Steve Amstrup and colleagues (Amstrup et al. 2007), making it hard to take subsequent predictions of impending catastrophe seriously (e.g. Atwood et al. 2016; Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015).
The doomsayers can’t stand to have someone provide the public with unbaised evidence of this failure so they attack my scientific integrity with an academically weak and aggressively vindictive ‘peer-reviewed’ paper (Harvey et al. 2017, in press) that you’ll hear more about in the new year.
Bottom line: 2017 saw abundant good news stories about polar bears, which I’ve summarized below. See also Crockford 2017b: Twenty reasons not to worry about polar bears, the 2017 update and my 2017 block-buster video, Polar Bear Scare Unmasked: The Saga of a Toppled Global Warming Icon:
Posted in Conservation Status, Population, Sea ice habitat, Summary
Tagged advocacy, BioScience, Chukchi Sea, failed predictions, good news, personal attack, science, sea ice, summary, Wrangel Island
Today I sent a letter to the editors of the journal Bioscience requesting retraction of the shoddy and malicious paper by Harvey et al. (Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy) published online last week.
The letter reveals information about the workings of the polar bear expert inner circle not known before now, so grab your popcorn.
I have copied the letter below, which contains emails obtained via FOIA requests to the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, E&E Legal, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic (USFWS request; USGS request) and sent to me by lawyer Chris Horner in 2014, unsolicited. I reveal some of them now, with his permission (most of the emails are boring, involving mostly technical topics not relevant to anything, as might be expected).
The emails in question, sent in 2014, pertain to preparations by three members of the Polar Bear Specialist Group for the IUCN Red List assessment due in 2015 (Kristin Laidre, University of Washington, Eric Regehr, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Østein Wiig, Museum of Natural History, University of Olso), and Steven Amstrup (formerly head of the polar bear research at the US Geological Survey, now “head scientist” for conservation organization Polar Bears International.
They include frank discussions about a harsh critique of Amstrup et al.’s 2007 report and 2008 paper used to support listing polar bears as ‘threatened’ on the US Endangered Species List. The criticisms come from modeling expert and chair of the IUCN Red List Standards and Petitions Subcommittee (which develops guidelines for threatened and endangered species assessments, and evaluates petitions against the red-listing of these species), H. Resit Akçakaya. The IUCN is the world’s leading conservation organization, of which the PBSG is a part.
These records are a damning indictment that the “best available science” was not used to assess conservation status of polar bears under the ESA in 2008 and 2014 and show that I am not the only scientist who thinks Amstrup’s model is fatally flawed. The letter is copied in full below, the emails are copied at the end. A file of all of the entire pertinent email thread is available as a pdf below. Here’s a sample:
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Population
Tagged Amstrup, emails, FOIA, IUCN, journal, models, PBSG, predictions, retraction, threatened, USFWS, USGS, vulnerable