Category Archives: Life History

Brace yourself: more starving polar bear news stories in the pipeline from Svalbard

A few polar bears have become stranded on small islands north of Svalbard since the local sea ice retreated — of which the bear that mauled a cruise ship guard last month was but one — and if return of the ice is as late as last year, those handful of bears are likely doomed to die of starvation. This is not due to climate change but rather bad judgment on the part of these few bears. They were not forced ashore: if they’d stayed on the ice like the rest of the population, they’d have likely been just fine.

Daily Mail stranded bear headline_3 Aug 2018 all

Similar to the bear in northwestern Hudson Bay that fatally mauled a young father in early July, these bears were likely lured ashore by the prospect of masses of bird eggs present on island rookeries. But they overstayed their window of opportunity and the ice retreated without them.

Fledgling birds and bird eggs are not replacements for seals in a bear’s diet but when the season of easy seal kills winds down, as it does in late spring, easy-picking sea bird eggs may be enticing enough to lure a few bears ashore when they’d be better off on the ice.

That is not the fault of climate change.

Unlike bears in Hudson Bay and many other regions — including the Lancaster Sound area of Canada where the National Geographic “starving” bear was filmed last summer — these bears were not forced ashore by retreating ice: they chose to do so.
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Churchill problem polar bear report for week 3, July 23-29 2018

Polar bears that have come off the sea ice of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba in Western Hudson Bay are apparently in a wide variety of conditions, from very fat to skinny.  So, not all skinny despite the relatively early breakup of ice in the northwest.

Churchill PB reports_week 3_ July 23-29_July 2018

Most of the ice was gone from the NW of Hudson Bay for the week of 23 July 2018 and the graph below shows that this is a new pattern that began in 1997, with only 2009 being an outlier:

Hudson Bay NW same week_ ice coverage 23 July 1971-2018 with trend

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea May and June updates

At the end of June, there were nine bears remaining from the original 14 that were tagged with glue-on ear transmittors in April 2018 near Kaktovik, Alaska by US Geological Survey biologists.

putting_collar_on_polar_bear_slider_USGS

Below is the June 2018 tracking map (high resolution image is here):

Beaufort tracking USGS bear-movements-June 2018 sm

Original caption: “Movements of 9 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of June, 2018. These bears received satellite eartag transmitters in 2018 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with AMSR2 remotely-sensed ice coverage for 30 June, 2018.”

See the close-up for June 2018 below:

Beaufort tracking USGS bear-movements-June 2018 closeup

As ear tags are notoriously short-lived, there may not be any remaining by the end of July but if there are, I will post the tracks. The map for May 2018 is below.
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Churchill area polar bears off the ice as of third week in July say problem bear reports

Second week of Polar Bear Alert Activity reports (16-22 July) for 2018 and already two bears are in jail, making it the busiest 3rd week in July since 2015:

churchill-pb-reports_week-2_-july-16-22_july-2018-e1532401430601.jpg

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New information on the fatal polar bear attack at Arviat, Western Hudson Bay

Additional information is available regarding the fatal mauling of a young Arviat father two weeks ago that may answer the question of why the bear left the Hudson Bay sea ice well before it was necessary. Was it lack of sea ice (blamed on global warming), as biologist Ian Stirling recently insisted — or did natural food attractants lure the bear ashore prematurely?

Aaron Gibbons_fishing_Gibbons family photo

I would also like to appeal to readers to consider a donation to the Go Fund Me campaign set up to support the widow and children of Aaron Gibbons, who was only 31 years old. So far, there has not been an overwhelming response (less than 1/2 of the modest goal of $5,000 met after two weeks) and that saddens me deeply.

I have contributed myself but each individual can only do so much. Imagine losing your spouse in this most vicious manner (the children witnessed the attack and were the one’s that called for help) and think of the challenges of healing your family and keeping it afloat financially. Please see the GO FUND ME page and contribute if you can.

What I’ve learned over the last week is that the polar bear that killed Aaron Gibbons was a big male in poor condition but he was not the only bear onshore at the time. In addition, the Arctic tern nesting colony on Sentry Island was undoubtedly an enticing natural attractant that seems to have encouraged these bears to leave the ice far north of where they might otherwise have come ashore.

UPDATE 20 July 2018: I’ve added the most recent (19 July) map of collared WH polar bear locations on Hudson Bay to the “Condition of the Sea Ice” discussion below. Also, I am pleased to see that the GO FUND ME campaign has now gone above the half-way mark (~$2800.00 as of 2:00 PM Pacific time). My personal thanks to every one who was able to contribute. I hope to see the goal reached within the next few days.
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Sea ice is critical habitat for polar bears from late fall through late spring only

Sea ice is said to be “an essential habitat for polar bears” but that’s an overly simplistic advocacy meme as ridiculous as the “no sea ice, no polar bears” message with which the public is constantly bombarded. Polar bears require sea ice from late fall to late spring only: from early summer to mid-fall, sea ice is optional. Historical evidence of polar bears that spent 5 months on land during the summer of 1874 proves an extended stay ashore is a natural response of polar bears to natural summer ice retreat, not a consequence of recent human-caused global warming. Sea ice is a seasonal requirement for polar bears: it’s not necessary year round.

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[This PBI newsletter from 2011 repeats this meme and Andrew Derocher’s recent tweet conveys a similar message (“Sea ice loss = habitat loss for polar bears”)]

As long as sea ice is available from late fall through late spring (December to early June) and accompanied by abundant seal prey (sometimes it isn’t, see Derocher and Stirling 1995; Stirling 2002; Stirling et al. 1981, 1982, 1984), polar bears can survive a complete or nearly complete fast from June to late November (and pregnant females from June to early April the following year). That’s the beauty of their Arctic adaptation: fat deposited in early spring allows polar bears to survive an extraordinary fast whether they spend the time on land or sea ice.

Young and very old bears, as well as sick and injured ones, are the exception: these bears often come ashore in poor condition and end up dying of starvation — as a much-publicized bear on Baffin Island who likely had a form of cancer did last summer (Crockford 2018). Competition with bigger, stronger bears means these bears can’t keep what they are able to kill and they are most often the bears who cause problems. Starvation is the leading natural cause of death for polar bears because if they cannot put on the fat they need in spring, they will not survive the low food months of summer and winter, whether they are on land or out on the sea ice (Amstrup 2003). Continue reading

Spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now largely irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point, except perhaps for young bears that haven’t had a chance to feed as heavily as necessary over the spring due to inexperience or competition.

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July through October are predator-savvy adults and subadults. But since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals to escape, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival!

Polar bears in most areas of the Arctic are at their fattest by late June. They are well prepared to go without food for a few months if necessary – a summer fast is normal for polar bears, even for those that spend their time on the sea ice.

Putting on hundreds of pounds of fat in the spring to last through periods of food scarcity later in the year (at the height of summer and over the winter) is the evolutionary adaptation that has allowed polar bears to live successfully in the Arctic.
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