Criminal charges dropped in case of polar bear shot by cruise ship guards in 2018

The guards from a cruise ship who shot an emaciated bear in self-defense in late July 2018 on the remote island of Phippsøya in northern Svalbard have had criminal charges against them dropped. It is illegal to kill polar bears in Norway, so the death of the bear automatically triggered a criminal investigation.

 

Polar bear shot in self defense on the island of Phippsøya in the Sjuoyene group north of Spitzbergen 28 July 2018 by guards from a cruise ship, photo courtesy Govenor of Svalbard.

This case, which made international headlines and sparked outrage at the time, also saw charges laid against the cruise ship that employed the guards. However, all charges against the company have also been dropped. See below for details on the decision and my post about the incident in 2018. No information on the condition of the bear was included in the statement about criminal charges.

 

Phippsøya is part of the Sjuoyene island group in northern Svalbard.

 

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First polar bear alert report for Churchill an astonishing seven weeks later than last year

The first report of the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, Manitoba was released today (1 September), a full seven weeks later than last year due to many bears remaining on the Western Hudson Bay ice much later than they have done in the past.

2020 Aug 31 - Polar Bear Stats_week 1 jpeg

As I mentioned previously, as long as I’ve been collecting these published reports (2015), there has not been a first report of the season issued later than the second week in July, so this year is really unusual and I suspect similar to the 1980s.

I thought it possible that this was a Covid-related delay getting conservation officers to Churchill but as you’ll see above, that appears not to be the case: there simply have been not enough serious problems with bears in Churchill to warrant sending officers out before last week. No information on the general condition of bears was included this year, as it has been in other years (see below).  Activity this last week in August 2020 was similar to the first week in July 2018.

Polar bear Cape East 0 Wakusp NP _24 Aug 2020 earlier

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Fatal polar bear attack in Svalbard unfairly blamed on lack of sea ice

A fatal polar bear attack in Svalbard, in the early hours of 28 August 2020 just outside the main town of Longyearbyen, is being unreasonably blamed on lack of sea ice. Details of the attack show it was made by a three year old male: such subadult bears are historically responsible for most attacks on people and they are known to be especially dangerous. It looks to me like someone should have seen this tragedy coming and stepped in to prevent it.

Svalbard_PB_Fareskilt_38

I will update this story as more information comes in but see below for the details known so far.

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Amid crying over low Arctic ice, W Hudson Bay polar bears leave ice as late as 2009

This year, the last collared Western Hudson Bay polar bear to leave the ice left as late, or later, than the last collared bear did in 2009 (which was an unusually late breakup year) and so far, all bears spotted have been in good physical condition despite inhabiting one of the most southern regions of the Arctic. All the while, sea ice experts have been hand-wringing about low Arctic sea ice –– in general and as polar bear habitat.

Polar bear Cape East 0 Wakusp NP _24 Aug 2020 earlier

A female with two yearling cubs on the shore of Wakusp National Park, Western Hudson Bay on 24 August 2020. Taken via livecam from almost a mile away.

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Risk to Alaskan polar bear cubs from oil exploration in coastal Wildlife Refuge is small

A bill recently introduced to US Congress (30 July 2020) is supposedly meant to “safeguard the Beaufort Sea polar bear’s denning habitat”.  However, the bill is named the “Polar Bear Cub Survival Act”, which tells us this is an appeal to emotions rather than a call for rational decision-making. In fact, few Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear cubs are born on land in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the risks to them from oil exploration is not overwhelming.

Amstrup_only solution_with 3 cubs_Oct 8 2014

Despite a modest decline in summer sea ice since 1979, only about half of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear females currently make their dens on the sea ice in late fall. Recent research confirms results from older studies that show denning females in Alaska are highly tolerant of the kind of disturbance associated with oil exploration and few dens are found more than about 1 km from the shore. This emotion-laden bill is not really about protecting polar bears: it’s a political move aimed at preventing oil exploration along the coast of Alaska after previous efforts failed. It comes ahead of an announcement today (18 August 2020) that the White House will begin to auction off leases for oil drilling in the ANWR.

Don’t let the ‘trust my word, I’m an expert’ hyperbolic testimony from activist scientists like Steven Amstrup and others hold sway on this issue – see for example Alaska polar bear den disturbances part of ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ researcher says (biologist Wesley Larson on Alaska Public Radio, 14 July 2020), or activist conservation organizations Polar Bears International and World Wildlife Fund. Have a look at the facts on the matter taken from the published literature, which I summarize below (as many pdfs provided as possible).

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Few bears on the ice off Western Hudson Bay at 14 August but will be onshore soon

Polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher published a tracking map of his collared polar bear females that shows one bear (out of 11) still on the rapidly diminishing ice north of Churchill in Western Hudson Bay – and where there is a collared female, there is almost certainly other bears doing the exact same thing:

Derocher 2020 WHB tracking map 14 Aug_1 bear still on the ice

Without evidence to support such a claim, Derocher (below) assumes this collared female is probably hunting seals. In fact, last year he admitted that most bears on Hudson Bay from at least July onward are unlikely to be successfully hunting seals:

Derocher 2020 Aug 14_1 bear still on the ice at 14 Aug odd behaviour

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Many W Hudson Bay polar bears still offshore at 7 August despite apparent low ice levels

Contrary to all expert expectations, five female polar bears (45%) out of eleven that had tracking collars attached last year were still out on the sea ice that’s lingering along the western shore of Hudson Bay as of 7 August. And if five collared bears are out there, then there are almost certainly many more without collars doing the same thing. This pattern of bears staying out on the ice long after the so-called ‘critical threshold’ of 50% concentration has passed has been going on since at least 2015 and many bears on tracking maps in July and August appear to be on ice that doesn’t exist.

Chukchi Sea polar bear Arctic_early August 2018_A Khan NSIDC small

There are two explanations for this pattern and both are likely true: 1) much more ice actually exists on Hudson Bay than satellites can detect and 2) polar bear experts are wrong that Western Hudson Bay polar bears head to land soon after sea ice concentration drops below 50%. Models that predict a catastrophic future for Western Hudson Bay polar bears (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2013; Molnar et al. 2020) assume that ice coverage of less than 50% in summer greatly reduces polar bear survival. However, if polar bears do not always head to land when sea ice drops below 50% then the models cannot possibly describe their future accurately. In other words, depending on the discredited ‘worst case’ RCP8.5 climate scenario for the most recent polar bear survival model that extrapolates from Western Hudson Bay bear data to many other subpopulations, as I discussed previously, may not be its only fault.

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Emperor penguin numbers rise as biologists petition for IUCN Red List upgrade

Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes fosteri) populations in 2019 were found to have grown by up to 10% since 2009 – to as many as 282,150 breeding pairs (up from about 256,500) out of a total population of over 600,000 birds (Fretwell et al. 2012; Fretwell and Trathan 2020; Trathan et al. 2020) – despite a loss of thousands of chicks in 2016 when an ice shelf collapsed. Yet, biologists studying this species are currently petitioning the IUCN to upgrade emperor penguins to ‘Vulnerable’ (Trathan et al. 2020), based on models that use the implausible and extreme RCP8.5 ‘worse case climate change scenario (e.g. Hausfather and Peters 2020) that polar bear biologists find so compelling. Not surprisingly, their unscientific models suggest emperor penguins could be close to extinction by 2100 under these unlikely conditions – but if we reduce CO2 emissions via political policy, the penguins will be saved!

Emperor penguins NOAA_Wikipedia 2006 med

Surprisingly, these researchers are going ahead with their petition to have emperor penguins uplisted despite the population increase and the reservations their colleagues expressed in 2018 about using climate change predictions to arrive at a classification of ‘Near Threatened’ for the IUCN Red List assessment (Birdlife International 2018), as noted below in their ‘justification’:

This species is listed as Near Threatened because it is projected to undergo a moderately rapid population decline over the next three generations owing to the projected effects of climate change. However, it should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty over future climatic changes and how these will impact the species.

Like polar bear biologists, some emperor penguin biologists just won’t give up on the prediction they developed back in the mid-2000s that climate change is sure to drive this species to near extinction. For example, Jenouvrier et al. (2009) calculated that there was at least a 36% chance of a 95% or more decline in emperor penguins by 2100 (what they called a “quasi-extinction”) due to changes in sea ice distribution. They suggested a decline of this magnitude would entail a fall from about 6,000 breeding pairs to about 400 in a single colony.  The newest model (Jenouvrier et al. 2020) similarly uses the RCP8.5 ‘worse case’ scenario to predict near-extinction by 2100, as their ‘graphic abstract’ below shows.

Jenouvrier et al 2020 emperor penguin pop decline graphic abstract

This group are also recommending that “the species is listed by the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Species” that would require a Species Action Plan (Trathan et al. 2020). And as co-author Peter Fretwell told the BBC last fall (9 October 2019):

“Everything we know – all the experts, all the models – tells us that Emperors are going to be in real trouble. We need to pull out all the stops to help them. That’s going to be hard because we know the one thing that’s really going to save them is stabilisation of the global climate.”

Sounds like something a polar bear specialist would say. Except that for polar bears, the catastrophe they keep predicting just won’t happen despite the fact that summer Arctic sea ice has been declining faster than anyone expected – so far, an almost 50% decline in ice has already happened yet global polar bear numbers keep slowly increasing (Crockford 2019; 2020).

Book graphics for promotion updated March 2020

I’d suggest that using far-fetched ‘worse case’ scenario predictions to propose an unlikely but scary-sounding future catastrophe isn’t likely to work any better for emperor penguins than it has done for polar bears, especially when the animals keep thriving.

However, some of the papers listed below are open access, so if you’re interested in more details I suggest you have a look. If you’d like a copy of the modelling paper (Jenouvrier et al. 2020), contact me and I’ll send it along. You’ll find more on the emperor penguin conservation issue in this essay by biologist Jim Steele.

References

BirdLife International. 2018. Aptenodytes forsteri. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697752A132600320. Downloaded on 07 August 2020. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22697752/132600320

Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. pdf here.

Fretwell, P.T., LaRue, M.A., Morin, P., Kooyman, G.L., Wienecke, B., Ratcliffe, N., Fox, A.J., Fleming, A.H., Porter, C. and Trathan, P.N. 2012. An emperor penguin population estimate: the first global, synoptic survey of a species from space. PLoS One 7: e33751 [open access] doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033751.

Fretwell, P.T. and Trathan, P.N. 2020. Discovery of new colonies by Sentinel2 reveals good and bad news for emperor penguins. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation [open access], in press. https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.176

Hausfather, Z. and Peters, G.P. 2020. Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading [“Stop using the worst-case scenario for climate warming as the most likely outcome — more-realistic baselines make for better policy”]. Nature 577: 618-620

Jenouvrier, S., Caswell, H., Barbraud, C., Holland, M., Stroeve, J. and Weimerskirch, H. 2009. Demographic models and IPCC climate projections predict the decline of an emperor penguin population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 106: 1844-1847.

Jenouvrier, S. et al. 2020. The Paris Agreement objectives will likely halt future declines of emperor penguins. Global Change Biology 26(3): 1170-1184. [paywalled] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.14864

Trathan, P.N. and others, including Fretwell, P. T. 2020. The emperor penguin – Vulnerable to projected rates of warming and sea ice loss. Biological Conservation 241:108216. [open access] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108216

Six good years in a row for the polar bear subpopulation used to predict species demise

In something resembling a new pattern for Western Hudson Bay polar bears, most of the animals are still out on the ice in late July this year, just like they were in the 1980s. The same thing happened last year but was brushed off as a happy anomaly. However, after last fall’s 1980s-like early freeze-up, this makes the sixth year in a row of good to very good sea ice conditions for Western Hudson Bay polar bears. No wonder polar bear experts haven’t published these data: good sea ice conditions along with polar bears coming ashore fat and healthy are not just inconvenient – they threaten to destroy the extinction panic narrative that depends on Western Hudson Bay bears showing evidence of harm from reduced sea ice.

WH 18 Sat July 2020 noon PT Cape East fat mother and cub_Wakusp NP explore dot org livecam

Fat mother and cub onshore at Wakusp National Park, Western Hudson Bay 18 July 2020, one of the first of the season.

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Is the demise of polar bears being exaggerated to keep extinction panic alive?

An excellent summary of recent points I’ve made in my latest book and on this blog about the recent push to keep polar bear extinction panic alive with a new model of impending doom was published two days ago in the Spectator UK by columnist Ross Clark (23 July 2020, in Coffee House).

Svalbard polar bear fall 2015_Aars

Excerpt below:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could debate climate change for five minutes without hearing about polar bears or being subjected to footage of them perched precariously on a melting ice floe? But that is a little too much to expect. Polar bears have become the pin-ups of climate change, the poor creatures who are supposed to jolt us out of thinking about abstract concepts and make us weep that our own selfishness is condemning these magnificent animals to a painful and hungry end.”

Read the whole thing here.

PS. I noticed Clark refers to me as an anthropologist. I have requested a correction because I am a zoologist.