Tag Archives: fat bears

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.

beaufort-bears_-suzanne-miller-usfws-3-af-2c-on-spit-1.jpg

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 a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. in prep), 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.”

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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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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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W Hudson Bay polar bear season wrap-up: problem bear stats & sea ice vs. 2016

This year, due to an early freeze-up of the sea ice, many polar bears left the Western Hudson Bay area (including Churchill) the week of November 6-12. However, the folks who produce Churchill’s problem polar bear statistics did not generate a report for that week, so we are left with assessing the final freeze-up situation based on the previous report (see it here) and the one they have just released for the week of 13-19 November (below), the 18th week of the season (which began July 10):

Churchill Polar bear alert report Nov 13-19_Nov 20 released

The “quiet” week was almost certainly due to the fact that very few bears were still around, having left the previous week.

While it is apparently true that a south wind briefly blew ice away from the area around the town of Churchill, most bears had left by that point and there was plenty of ice to the north and southeast for bears that had congregated outside the town to wait for the ice to form.

Churchill sits on a point of land (see map below) that makes new ice vulnerable to winds from the south but this year impact was small: the north winds returned within a few days and so did the ice.

Hudson Bay weekly ice stage of development 2017 Nov 20

By this week there were still a few stragglers that hadn’t left shore but most of these were mothers with cubs, as well as young bears living on their own, who often hold back to avoid dangerous encounters with adult males at the ice edge.

A few adult males that were still in excellent condition after 4 months ashore without food seemed in no particular hurry to resume hunting. In part, this may have been due to the rather foul weather prevalent since the first week of November (with howling winds, low temperatures and blowing snow much of the time).

You can see in the chart below just how much more ice there was for the week of 20 November compared to average — all those dark and light blue areas along the west coast of Hudson Bay (and east of Baffin Bay) indicate more ice than usual. Even Southern Hudson Bay has enough shore ice for bears to resume hunting. Foxe Basin (to the north of Hudson Bay) has less ice than usual (red and pink) but there is still enough ice for polar bears there to begin their fall hunting, as the chart above makes very clear.

Hudson Bay weekly departure from normal 2017 Nov 20

Freeze-up and bear movement offshore were about three weeks earlier this year in Western Hudson Bay compared to 2016, which made a huge difference to the number of problem bears in Churchill, see below.

UPDATE 23 November 2017: CIS ice chart for today showing the ice forming in the northwest sector of Hudson Bay

Sea ice Canada 2017 Nov 23

UPDATE 27 November 2017: Final problem polar bear report copied below, issued by the town of Churchill. As noted above, the fact that some bears remained onshore into last week was a very local anomaly not experienced over the rest of the region.

churchill-pb-reports_week-19_20-26-nov-2017_last-of-the-season.jpg

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Video: Death of a Climate Icon, the polar bear’s demise as a useful poster child

Last week I asked: “What’s causing the death of the polar bear as a climate change icon?”

I was echoing the conclusion of a commentator at the Arctic Institute (22 August 2017) who lamented: “The polar bear is dead, long live the polar bear” and climate scientist Michael Mann, who told a lecture audience a few months ago that polar bears are no longer useful for generating “action” on climate change.

Crockford 2017_Slide 15 screencap

This is slide 15 from my presentation at ICCC-12 in Washington, D.C. in March 2017.

Now here’s the video. Watch “The Death of a Climate Icon” (31 August 2017):

The video was made possible with the assistance of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Kind of makes you wonder: is Al Gore’s recent climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, tanking at the box office because he couldn’t include polar bears as an example of the effects of human-caused global warming as he did in his award-winning 2007 effort? Did too many polar bears doom Gore’s 2017 movie?

Conclusions in the video about the predictions of polar bear decline vs. the current status of polar bears and sea ice are documented in my 2017 published paper:

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

Crockford 2017 sea ice graphic

Kaktovik, AK has a polar bear problem but not because bears are desperate for food

PBS has published a bizarre poor-starving-polar-bears story that uses pictures of fat, healthy bears to illustrate the supposed desperation of malnourished bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea that is blamed on declining sea ice.

pbs-newshour-headline_15-october-2016

The photo of the fat bear above, taken by the Kaktovik resident quoted in the 15 October 2016 PBS story, Polar bears, growing desperate for food, threaten native Alaskans, accompanies this statement:

“While images of malnourished polar bears have become a national symbol of the effects of climate change, they are a front line reality for Native Alaskans, who face them on their own property and do not want them to get hurt.”

Except this is not a story about starving bears but too many fat bears hanging around one particular community looking for other kinds of food – after being lured in by the enticing smell of rotting whale meat left onshore by the residents.

If photos of starving Beaufort bears existed that PBS could have used to illustrate this story, I’m certain those photos would have been used. But virtually all of the pictures I’ve seen of Kaktovik bears are the epitome of health – fat and sassy – but none that could be described as starving.

polar_bear-US FWS_young bear Alaska maybe Kaktovik no date.jpg

It turns out that while native Kaktovik residents have profited from tourists and journalist who have shown up in droves to view the large numbers of bears attracted to the bone piles left after butchering summer-caught bowhead whales, the bears have also put the community at risk of personal attack and loss of stored food. Who would have thought?

Residents of Kaktovik (see map below) have unwittingly enticed these polar bears ashore and now must deal with the consequences. As the residents of Churchill discovered decades ago, having polar bears close to your community comes with benefits, problems – and danger.

kaktovik-composite

There is no doubt that Kaktovik has a polar bear problem but it cannot plausibly be blamed on anthropogenic global warming, retreating sea ice, or starving bears – an irresistible attractant close to the community is the cause and solutions must be found to keep residents safe and their food secure. The PBS article discusses a few of those solutions. Some quotes and background below.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – all bears on the ice in June

The recent open water in the Southern Beaufort didn’t seem to change what polar bears were doing – bears tracked by USGS show them on the ice, likely trying to hunt. More ice edge means more hunting habitat at this time of year.

Beaufort tracking USGS bear-movements-June 2016 lg closeup

However, few hunts are likely successful at this time of year – because only older seals are on the ice and the broken ice makes escape so much easier for the seals (see previous post here). Fat bears on shore this summer (like the ones seen at Kaktovik in September) will tell us that they got enough to eat earlier in the season. Note that bears in good condition that appear at the whaling bone piles in September are there by choice (not stranding) and they got fat by feeding in the spring (March-May), not by picking at leftover whale scraps. Calories from terrestrial sources (for most bears) just reduce the amount of weight they lose over the summer.

More maps below. Continue reading