Category Archives: Population

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.


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 now a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. 2018 in prep, see update below), 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.”

UPDATE 15 November 2018: The scientific paper describing the entirely new method (yes, yet another one: see Bromaghin et al. 2015) used to estimate the size of the Chukchi Sea population is now available (University of Washington press release here), in an open-access paper: Regher et al. 2018. News reports (see one here) spin the positive outcome as something that researchers expected all along but that’s simply not true. They expected Chukchi Sea bears and Southern Beaufort Sea bears to respond similarly to reduced amounts of summer sea ice, as explained here and in Crockford 2017).
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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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Polar bears do not outnumber people in Svalbard and the backlash against ecotourism over a justified defensive kill

It is often said that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, Norway (see BBC, “Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship guard29 July 2018). But that isn’t true now and probably hasn’t been for a very long time. This pseudo-fact (a misunderstanding made by tourism promoters) continues to be quoted as the story about the Svalbard polar bear shot by a cruise ship bear guard last week evolves in the online and print media. The media continue to focus on social media backlash against ecotourism, which is nothing like the pushback about the starving polar video from last year.

Svalbard dead bear_Gustav Busch Arntsen_Governor of Svalbard_NTB Scanpix via AP 28 July 2018

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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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Hansen’s 1988 climate change testimony was the answer to Stirling’s polar bear problem

Last week’s media coverage made me realize that James Hansen’s testimony to a US Senate committee in 1988 provided well-timed answer to a vexatious problem facing polar bear biologist Ian Stirling. Thirty years ago, Stirling was struggling to understand why polar bear productivity in Western Hudson Bay had dropped.  He was ripe for the suggestion from Hansen (and his follow-up paper) that human-caused global warming could be the explanation. An interview with Stirling and colleague Andrew Derocher published in 2016 helps connect the dots.DA-IS-measuring_Ian Stirling

Many bears were in poor condition in the fall of 1983 (Calvert et al. 1986:19, 24; Ramsay and Stirling 1988). In general, the 1980s saw weights of bears decline and cub mortality increase, with a marked increase in the loss of whole litters over what had been documented in the 1960s and 1970s (Derocher and Stirling 1992, 1995).

Until Hansen and climate change came along,  density-dependent effects (such as the number of bears out-pacing food supply) were seen as the most likely explanation. But sea ice decline blamed on human-caused global warming was suddenly a new possibility that Stirling soon embraced (Stirling and Derocher 1993). By the late 1990s, sea ice coverage on Hudson Bay had indeed declined but the correlation with polar bear productivity produced a weak trend that was not statistically significant (Stirling et al. 1999).

The 1999 Stirling paper did not provide scientific evidence to explain the 1980s decline in productivity as much as it presented a novel scapegoat to blame when a more plausible explanation could not be made.

Bottom line: Global warming could not have been the proximate cause of the productivity changes in WH polar bears documented during the 1980s but Stirling spent the next two and a half decades vigorously pushing climate change as the cause of all polar bear ills. Continue reading

Wear white on the solstice to celebrate polar bear success in a warming world

Wednesday 21 June is the longest day of the year: wear something white tomorrow to acknowledge and celebrate the success of polar bears despite such low summer sea ice since 2007 that 2/3 of them were predicted to disappear.

white sunglasses

White hats

White tie, white shirt, white socks work too. Keep cool and signal to the world that you love outstanding survivors of climate change,  fat though they may be.

Cover image_Twenty Reasons_polarbearscience

Read here and here.

Global sea ice extent at 19 June 2018, well past the end of the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 June 19

Environment Canada maps of polar bear population and status assessments 2018

Just out (6 June 2018) — new population assessment and status maps of the 19 polar bear subpopulations according to Environment Canada. Contrary to the map presented at the Range State meeting in February 2018 (pdf here), these maps show Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay (along with the Southern Beaufort) as “likely declined.” A new category has been added for the Barents Sea: it’s considered “data deficient/uncertain,” but a population estimate of 2,001-3,000 has been provided.

No press release or other notice regarding the availability of these new maps was issued, as far as I know: I came across them by accident while looking for something else.

Global pb status and population map EC 2018

Global map above, more below, including a comparative map that shows 2010, 2014, and 2018 together. I will update the two recent posts of mine (here and here) that used the February Range State map with the information that more recently revised maps are now available.

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