Category Archives: Conservation Status

Breaking: 2016 W. Hudson Bay polar bear survey shows the population is still stable

A just-released report on the most recent (2016) survey shows Western Hudson Bay polar bear numbers were still stable despite predictions that this subpopulation would be wiped out completely (reduced to zero) due to low Arctic sea ice.

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

The authors of the report on the August 2016 aerial survey of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation (Dyck et al. 2017) state clearly that the only trends they could find were that the number of adult males increased somewhat over 2011 estimates and the number of females either declined or remained stable. The overall population estimate was a bit lower (11% less) compared to the 2011 survey but the difference is not statistically significant. Therefore, the population status must be stable.

2011 estimate: 949 bears (using comparable data, range 618-1280), litter size 1.43

2016 estimate: 842 bears (using comparable data, range 562-1121), litter size 1.63

[cf. Foxe Basin [stable], from 2009-2010 survey (Stapleton et al. 2016) litter size was 1.54]

An 11% decline in WH numbers since 2011 is most definitely NOT the decline to ZERO (extirpation) we were told to expect with Arctic sea ice as low as it has been since 2007 (Crockford 2017, see list of annual minimum extents 2007-2017 here).

Note: The percentage decline from 2011 to 2016 for Western Hudson Bay polar bears is 11%, NOT 18% as claimed recently by Andrew Derocher on twitter: it is not appropriate to compare the official 2011 estimate of 1030 (Stapleton 2014) to the 2016 estimate of 842 because the methods used to generate the estimates were different (Dyck et al. 2017). The authors of the report state that the estimate for 2011 that’s comparable to 2016 is 949.

An 11% decline from 1030 would be 917 bears, a statistically insignificant decline that is also biologically insignificant and therefore, so slight as to indicate a stable population.

Predicted sea ice at 2050 and 2080 shown below (see Crockford 2017 for details):

Crockford 2017 sea ice graphic

Quotes, map, and table from the Dyck et al. 2017 report (pdf here) are copied below.

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Video: Death of a Climate Icon, the polar bear’s demise as a useful poster child

Last week I asked: “What’s causing the death of the polar bear as a climate change icon?”

I was echoing the conclusion of a commentator at the Arctic Institute (22 August 2017) who lamented: “The polar bear is dead, long live the polar bear” and climate scientist Michael Mann, who told a lecture audience a few months ago that polar bears are no longer useful for generating “action” on climate change.

Crockford 2017_Slide 15 screencap

This is slide 15 from my presentation at ICCC-12 in Washington, D.C. in March 2017.

Now here’s the video. Watch “The Death of a Climate Icon” (31 August 2017):

The video was made possible with the assistance of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Kind of makes you wonder: is Al Gore’s recent climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, tanking at the box office because he couldn’t include polar bears as an example of the effects of human-caused global warming as he did in his award-winning 2007 effort? Did too many polar bears doom Gore’s 2017 movie?

Conclusions in the video about the predictions of polar bear decline vs. the current status of polar bears and sea ice are documented in my 2017 published paper:

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

Crockford 2017 sea ice graphic

Pacific walrus haulout two weeks early, US gov’t agency blames “earliest” ice loss

Walrus 2012 July USGSThis year’s baseless media frenzy over walrus survival and loss of summer sea ice blamed on human-caused global warming was initiated by a press release from US Fish and Wildlife last week (16 August 2017, pdf here: “Pacific walruses haul out near Point Lay earlier than in previous years“). Quote below, my bold:

In the first week of August, several hundred Pacific walruses were observed on a barrier island near the Native Village of Point Lay, a small, Iñupiaq community on the northwest coast of Alaska. This is the earliest date yet for the haulout to form…This year, sea ice has retreated beyond the continental shelf earlier than in previous years

But is this all true? In a word, no — and it didn’t take much research to uncover the truth.

UPDATE 24 August 2017: A few minutes after this post was published, I became aware that just yesterday, 20 conservation activist organizations, lead by the Center for Biological Diversity (who led the polar bear listing charge) issued a press release regarding a letter (pdf here) pressuring the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Apparently, a decision must be made by the end of September on whether to actively list walrus or not. The text below has been amended to reflect this development.
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Fat polar bears [and lots of them] drive public confidence in future of the species

What is causing the death of the polar bear as a climate change icon? Fat bears are part of it, but mostly it’s the fact that polar bear numbers haven’t declined as predicted.

Western Hudson Bay polar bears around Churchill, Manitoba appear mostly in good shape this summer despite the very late freeze-up last fall, including the very fat bear caught on camera below (see more great pictures here):

Churchill_PolarBears_FAT bear post_21 Aug 2017

Not only have we been seeing pictures of fat bears rather than starving bears in recent years but there are lots of them, in Western Hudson Bay and other seasonal sea ice regions where there should be none (if the models had been correct). No wonder polar bears are falling out of favour as an icon for catastrophic human-caused global warming.

[Here’s another picture of a fat bear, this one from Svalbard]

Excuses for why the public is no longer worried about the future of polar bears include a recent claim by climate scientist Michael Mann that “by making polar bears and penguins the poster child for climate change, we have wrongly conveyed that this is some exotic problem far off.

But none of these apologists acknowledge the simple truth: the models that  predicted catastrophe for polar bears due to diminished summer sea ice turned out to be wrong. The sea ice declined but polar bears flourished. Polar bears in seasonal sea ice ecoregions like Western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay didn’t die off due to climate change as people were told would happen — why should they believe any of the other scare stories?

In and around Churchill, where tourists flock to see Western Hudson Bay polar bears up close and personal, one bear in good condition recently ran through town:

Overall, there have been fewer problems or conflicts this year in Churchill compared to last (after 6 weeks of onshore living), see below.

Polar bears are no longer a useful global warming icon because they are thriving despite diminished sea ice: Churchill area polar bears are a good example.

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Abrupt summer sea ice decline has not affected polar bear numbers as predicted

Yes, Arctic sea ice has declined since satellite records began in 1979 but polar bears have adjusted well to this change, especially to the abrupt decline to low summer sea ice levels that have been the norm since 2007.

Global pb population size sea ice 2017 July PolarBearScience

Some polar bear subpopulations have indeed spent more time on land in summer than in previous decades but this had little negative impact on health or survival and while polar bear attacks on humans appear to have increased in recent years (Wilder et al. 2017), the reasons for this are not clear: reduced summer sea ice is almost certainly not the causal factor (see previous post here).

Ultimately, there is little reason to accept as plausible the computer models (e.g. Atwood et al. 2016; Regehr et al. 2016) that suggest polar bear numbers will decline by 30% or more within a few decades: even the IUCN Red List assessment (Wiig et al. 2015) determined the probability of that happening was only 70%.

Arctic sea ice has never been a stable living platform (Crockford 2015): it shifts from season to season, year to year, and millennia to millennia. Without the ability to adapt to changing conditions, Arctic species like polar bears and their prey species (seals, walrus, beluga, narwhal) would not have survived the unimaginably extreme changes in ice extent and thickness that have occurred over the last 30,000 years, let alone the extremes of sea ice they endured in the last 200,000 years or so.

Some biologists continue to hawk doomsday scenarios for polar bears due to summer sea ice loss but the truth is that their previous predictions based on sea ice declines failed so miserably (e.g. Amstrup et al. 2007) that it’s impossible to take the new ones seriously — especially since the basic assumptions that caused the first predictions to fail have not been corrected, as I’ve stated in print (Crockford 2017:27):

In summary, recent research has shown that most bears are capable of surviving a summer fast of five months or so as long as they have fed sufficiently from late winter through spring, which appears to have taken place since 2007 despite marked declines in summer sea ice extent.

The assumption that summer sea ice is critical feeding habitat for polar bears is not supported.

Recent research shows that changes in summer ice extent generally matter much less than assumed in predictive polar bear survival models of the early 2000s as well as in recent models devised to replace them (Amstrup et al. 2010; Atwood et al. 2016a; Regehr et al. 2015; Regeher et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015), while variations in spring ice conditions matter more.

As a consequence, the evidence to date suggests that even if an ‘ice-free’ summer occurs sometime in the future ­ defined as sea ice extent of 1 million km2 or less (Jahn et al. 2016) ­ it is unlikely to have a devastating impact on polar bears or their prey. [my bold]

The abrupt drop in summer sea ice that occurred in 2007 was not predicted by experts to occur until mid-century yet the predicted decimation of polar bears worldwide expected under those conditions (a loss of 2/3 of the global total, to only about 6660-8325 bears) not only did not happen, it did not come even close to happening (Crockford 2017; see also my recent books, Polar Bear Facts & Myths, and Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change, sidebar).

Instead, the global population grew from about 22,550 bears in 2005 to about 28,500 bears in 2015. And while this might not be a statistically significant increase (due to the very wide margins of error for polar bear estimates), it is absolutely not a decline.

The present reality is that low summer sea ice cover since 2007 has not caused polar bear numbers to decline and therefore, polar bears are not a species in trouble. This suggests that even if the Arctic should become briefly ice-free in summer in the future, polar bears are likely to be only minimally affected and not become threatened with extinction. Polar bears are outstanding survivors of climate change: recent research and their evolutionary history confirm this to be true.

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Polar bear attacks are extremely rare says new study — but the data are incomplete

I did considerable research on polar bear attacks for my thriller of a novel EATEN — which many readers are finding a welcome change from the numbers-and-statistics approach of science — and I have to say that a recently published scientific summary of this phenomenon (1880-2014) authored by biologist James Wilder and colleagues left me speechless (Wilder et al. 2017).

Isbjørn

with permission, see EATEN cover.

By attempting to generate information that could be assessed with statistical methods, the authors ended up with data that is so skewed and incomplete that it fails to provide a plausible assessment of the risk to humans of attacks by polar bears. In my opinion, acknowledging that well-reported attacks on Europeans (or recorded by them) make up the bulk of the data used in the paper does not adequately address the weakness of the authors’ conclusions that attacks by polar bears are “extremely rare.”

The paper also focuses much attention on the potential for increases in polar bear attacks on humans due to sea ice loss (blamed on global warming) but ignores totally the increased risk stemming from the larger proportion of adult males that now exist in protected populations. Adult males frequently steal the kills of younger bears and in recovering (i.e. growing) populations, relatively more adult males potentially generate more young males that are nutritionally stressed and at risk of attacking humans (see discussion below).

Finally, no supplementary data is provided to show which records of attacks were included in the study, and no information is provided about how to access the database. How is that possible in this day and age?

Much is made in the paper of the negative effect of polar bear attacks on conservation objectives and the perceived increase in attacks associated with recent sea ice loss. These points were picked up by activist organization Polar Bears International (“Save Our Sea Ice!“) in a press release issued yesterday (11 July, pdf here). This has already generated the desired media attention (here and here, likely more to follow, like this) which is predictably focused on predictions of more polar bear attacks on humans due to global warming.

I have a feeling Inuit and other native inhabitants of the Arctic will not be impressed.

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W Hudson Bay polar bears won’t have an early breakup year, according to sea ice charts

There is still a huge swath of highly concentrated thick first year ice (>1.2m) over most of Hudson Bay this week (19 June 2017) and even in the NW quadrant (the closest proxy we have for Western Hudson Bay), the weekly graph shows levels are greater than 2016, when WHB bears came off the ice in good condition about mid-July. All of which indicates 2017 won’t be an early sea ice breakup year for WHB polar bears.

Hudson Bay weekly ice stage of development 2017 June 19

There is thick first year ice (>1.2m, dark green) in patches along the west coast in the north and south. Thick first year ice also extends into Hudson Strait and Baffin Bay, with some medium first year ice (0.7-1.2m thick, bright green) along the central and southern coasts of WHB.  Note the red triangles incorporated into the thick ice of Hudson Strait in the chart above: those are icebergs from Greenland and/or Baffin Island glaciers. A similar phenomenon has been noted this year off northern Newfoundland, where very thick glacier ice became mixed with thick first year pack ice and were compacted against the shore by storm winds to create patches of sea ice 5-8 m thick.

Compare the above to what the ice looked like last year at this time (2016 20 June, below). There is more open water in the east this year (where few WHB bears would likely venture anyway) but less open water around Churchill and Wapusk National Park to the south than there was in 2016:

Hudson Bay ice age weekly at 20 June 2016

We won’t know for several more weeks if most WHB bears will come ashore at about the same time as last year (early to mid-July) or whether they will be in as good condition as they were last year (because winter conditions may not have been similar).

But so far, sea ice conditions are not looking as dire as the weekly “departure from normal” chart (below, 19 June 2017) might suggest (all that “less than normal” red and pink, oh no!!):

Hudson Bay weekly departure from normal 2017 June 19 Continue reading