Tag Archives: abundance

Polar bear researchers knew S Beaufort population continued to increase up to 2012

Why did the Southern Beaufort polar bear population survey stop in 2010? It’s clear that the recently-published and widely-hyped new study stopped before the population rebound from a known decline was complete.

USFWS 2013-2014 PB News_cover_PolarBearScience

The researchers of the recently-published paper knew before starting their mark-recapture study in 2007 that the population decline had taken place. They also knew why the numbers dropped and that previous declines, caused by similar conditions, had been followed by a full recovery.

Did they really think a full recovery in population numbers was possible in only three four years, when cubs born in 2007 would not yet have been old enough to reproduce?

In fact, a US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) fall survey of Southern Beaufort polar bears in 2012 found numbers were higher than they had been in a decade.
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S Beaufort polar bears largely recovered from known 2004-2006 decline, says new study

A bit more good news about polar bear populations, this time from an abundance study in the Southern Beaufort Sea. A paper released yesterday showed a 25-50% decline in population size took place between 2004 and 2006 (larger than previously calculated). However, by 2010 the population had rebounded substantially (although not to previous levels).

All the media headlines (e.g. The Guardian) have followed the press release lead and focused on the extent of the decline. However, it’s the recovery portion of the study that’s the real news, as it’s based on new data. Such a recovery is similar to one documented in the late 1970s after a significant decline occurred in 1974-1976 that was caused by thick spring ice conditions.

Polar bear with collar and tag_USGS_labeled

The title of the new paper by Jeffery Bromaghin and a string of polar bear biologists and modeling specialists (including all the big guns: Stirling, Derocher, Regehr, and Amstrup) is “Polar bear population dynamics in the southern Beaufort Sea during a period of sea ice decline.” However, the study did not find any correlation of population decline with ice conditions. They did not find any correlation with ice conditions because they did not include spring ice thickness in their models – they only considered summer ice conditions.

I find this very odd, since previous instances of this phenomenon, which have occurred every 10 years or so since the 1960s, have all been associated with thick spring ice conditions (the 1974-76 and 2004-2006 events were the worst). [Another incident may have occurred this spring (April 2014) but has not been confirmed].

Whoever wrote the press release for this paper tried hard to suggest the cause of the 2004-2006 event might have been “thin” winter ice caused by global warming that was later deformed into thick spring ice, an absurd excuse that has been tried before (discussed here). If so, what caused the 1974-1976 event?

It seems rather unscientific as well as implausible to even try to blame this recent phenomenon on global warming. However, neither the authors of the paper or the press release writers seemed to want to admit that 2-3 years of thick ice development in the Southern Beaufort could have been the cause of the population decline in 2004 (as for all of the previous events). No, that wouldn’t do, not in the age of global warming.

So, we are left with this equally absurd conclusion from the author:

The low survival may have been caused by a combination of factors that could be difficult to unravel,” said Bromaghin, “and why survival improved at the end of the study is unknown.

I’ve summarized the paper to the best of my understanding (there was a lot of model-speak to wade through), leaving out the prophesies of extinction, which in my opinion don’t add anything.

UPDATE November 19, 2014: Don’t miss my follow-up post, with some startling new information, Polar bear researchers knew S. Beaufort population continued to increase up to 2012
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Southern Beaufort polar bear ‘decline’ & reduced cub survival touted in 2008 was invalid, PBSG now admits

It is now clear that the phenomenon of bears moving across Southern Beaufort Seapbsg logo subpopulation boundaries compromised the US decision to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) knows that was the case.

As I pointed out last week, the PBSG has admitted in their 2013 status table update (pdf here) that bears move around so much between the Chukchi Sea (CS), the Southern Beaufort (SB), and the Northern Beaufort (NB) subpopulations that major changes in the boundaries of the SB subpopulation are necessary (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas – and population estimates. Southern Beaufort boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas and population estimates. Southern Beaufort (SB) boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea (CS) is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort (NB) is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Well, that’s not really news — changes to the SB boundaries were promised by the PBSG back in 2009 (Obbard et al. 2010), based on research by Steven Amstrup and colleagues published in 2001 and 2005. But now, in an astonishing admission, the PBSG have acknowledged that the last population survey for the SB (Regehr, Amstrup and Stirling, 2006), which appeared to register a decline in population size and reduced cub survival over time, did not take known movements of bears into account as it should have done.

In other words, that 2006 study almost certainly did not indicate bears dying due to reduced summer sea ice in the SB, as biologists said at the time — and which they presented as evidence that polar bears should be listed by the ESA as ‘threatened’ — but reflected capture of bears that were never part of the SB subpopulation and so moved out of the region.

As the PBSG said about the 2006 estimate:

“…it is important to note that there is the potential for un-modeled spatial heterogeneity in mark-recapture sampling that could bias survival and abundance estimates.” [my emphasis]

Spatial heterogeneity” means that the sampled bears could have come from more than one population, a possibility which violates a critical requirement of the statistics used to generate the population and survival estimates. “Un-modeled” means that the ‘movement of bears’ problem was not factored into the mathematical models that generated the 2006 population size and survival estimates as it should have been.

Ecologist Jim Steele pointed some of this out in his book and his guest post last year, so it’s not news that this was done.

What’s shocking is that the PBSG have now admitted that the ‘movement of bears’ issue essentially invalidates the 2006 population estimate and the much-touted ‘reduced survival of cubs.’ The reduced survival of cubs data from that SB study was a critical component of the argument that US bears were already being negatively impacted by global warming and thus, should be listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA (US Fish & Wildlife Service 2008).

Since the population decline and reduced survival is now acknowledged to be unfounded — and perhaps deliberately so — I ask you this: will a new SB survey — soon to be released by the same lead author (Eric Regehr) — undo the broken trust in US and PBSG polar bear biologists? Continue reading