Tag Archives: ESA

Challenging Alaska polar bear research sound bites and bewildering ESA status

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

It’s easy to take polar bear research papers at face value but it’s not very scientific. The snappy sound bites provided for the benefit of the media – whether they’re embedded in press releases or in published abstracts – don’t cut it with trained scientists. Trained scientists read the whole report, critically examine the evidence it contains and assess that evidence within the context of previous knowledge. That’s what they are trained to do.

I challenge the superficial summary on the status of Alaskan polar bear populations provided by FactCheck.org journalist Vanessa Schipani.  Schipani disputed a comment made by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski that, according to the latest research Alaskan polar bear population numbers are strong and healthy. I’m not especially interested in the political context of the statement, only Schipani’s bald claim that Murkowski’s declaration is false.

I’ve read all the relevant papers in full and I contend that the evidence supports Murkowski’s statement. Schipani is confusing the issue by regurgitating ‘facts’ that don’t tell the truth of the matter. By the sum of accounts, Alaskan polar bear populations are indeed healthy and strong – whether or not this status will continue is an entirely different question. Continue reading

Designated critical habitat for Alaskan polar bears offers no protection from thick spring ice deaths

The Obama administration is apparently attempting to overturn a previous ruling that rejected proposed Alaskan “critical habitat” for polar bears in 2013 – as if “critical habitat” would protect the bears from the repeated episodes of thick spring ice that develop in this region every 10 years or so.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

According to a Reuters report today (5 May 2015):

Seeking to reverse a ruling throwing out its designation of critical habitat for polar bears, the Obama administration has defended its decision to list large swathes of the Arctic as necessary for the conservation of the threatened species.

A coalition of oil industry groups and Alaska Natives, represented by Stoel Rives and Holland & Hart, successfully persuaded the U.S. District Court for Alaska to vacate the government’s polar bear habitat designation in 2013.” [my bold]

If they succeed, it would put most of the north coast of Alaska under special ESA rules, as the map below shows (click to enlarge).

Critical habitat Polar Bears US_NorthSlopeOrg map_labeled_PolarBearScience

As I commented previously, regarding the Obama administration’s recommendation to congress that they approve a proposed Arctic wildlife refuge area on Alaska’s North Slope, this move (if implemented) would not protect polar bears from the starvation deaths due to thick spring ice conditions that have occurred in this region for 2-3 years out of every 10 since 1960 at least.

The other issue is how much additional, biologically meaningful protection a critical habitat designation would provide for Southern Beaufort and Chukchi Sea polar bears – over and above that already provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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US biologists used same flawed models for listing walrus and polar bears as ‘threatened’

More bad science: US biologists successfully used a scientifically flawed model to get polar bears listed as ‘threatened’ and thus emboldened, went on to do the same for walrus.

Walruses_USFWS photo_030515_March 2015

The intricate US Geological Survey model of ‘expert opinion’ that was used to support the listing of polar bears as ‘threatened’ under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been soundly rejected by the world’s leading conservation organization, the IUCN,1 which has has tightened its rules for using “future conditions” (e.g., effects of global warming) in generating Red List assessments. That IUCN condemnation means the USGS model was never “the best available science” for evaluating the status of polar bears  ̶  it was (and still is) substandard, inadequate science that makes a mockery of serious conservation efforts.

However, not only has this flawed model continued to be used by the USGS for polar bears, it has also been used to assess the conservation status of Pacific walrus, which are now officially “candidates” for being listed as ‘threatened’ (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2011).2

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Editorial calls for more jobs for polar bear biologists

An editorial in the Edmonton Journal this morning (“Stand on guard for polar bears”) takes a most extraordinary position: that the results of two recent papers of dubious value should motivate Canada to create more jobs for polar bear biologists, “protect” the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (from what, they don’t say), and galvanize Canada’s position with respect to curtailing carbon dioxide emissions. In that order.

Edmonton Journal editorial photo 22 January 2015

Edmonton Journal editorial photo 22 January 2015. Munich Zoo bears.

First, the unnamed editors1 say: “This country needs more eyes and ears monitoring the health, numbers and locations of its polar bear populations.

Why would they come to that conclusion? They quote University of Alberta’s Andrew Derocher (who supervises a number of students doing polar bear research in Western Hudson Bay):

“If Canada was doing the right thing, we’d have extensive monitoring,” University of Alberta polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher said to the Journal in late 2014.

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Amstrup knows his polar bear predictions are flawed – but continues to promote them

The largest conservation organization in the world says that predictive models developed by polar bear biologist Steven Amstrup are utterly unsuitable for scientifically estimating future populations. Earlier this year, mathematical modeling experts  at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, who maintain the Red List of Threatened Species, made it clear that Amstrup’s models (used in 2008 to convince the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ due to predicted global warming) do not meet IUCN standards.

I’d say this makes Amstrup’s polar bear projections (Amstrup et al. 2008, 2010) no more scientifically useful than a crystal ball prophesy, but you wouldn’t know it by his recent actions — or the silence of his fellows.

crystal ball_3c

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Bearded seals in Alaska face no serious threat of reduction, let alone extinction, judge rules

Here’s a significant turn of events involving a story I reported on earlier: a US District Court judge ruled on Friday 25 July 2014 that the Bering/Chukchi Sea population of bearded seal (Erignatha barbatus) was improperly given ‘threatened’ species status in 2012. Judge Beistline ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to correct deficiencies in its study of the population.

Bearded seals are important secondary prey species for polar bears in some regions of the Arctic (Thiemann et al. 2008), after ringed seals (which were also listed as ‘threatened’ in 2012).

beardedseal-mspindler-usfws

Among other points made in his written decision, the judge is quoted as saying (reported here):

“A listing under the ESA based upon speculation, that provides no additional action intended to preserve the continued existence of the listed species, is inherently arbitrary and capricious.” [my emphasis]

Arbitrary and capricious — now that’s a slap-down. He also reportedly called the ESA listing “an abuse of discretion.”

The question is, how often have other ESA listings – not challenged in court – been based on similarly arbitrary and capricious decisions that also involved an abuse of discretion?

More quotes from Judge Beistline’s decision, and reaction to it, below.
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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