Tag Archives: IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group

IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group out-lived its usefulness 20 years ago

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) should have been disbanded in 1996, the year polar bears were down-graded from a status of ‘vulnerable to extinction’ to ‘lower risk – conservation dependent’ (now called ‘least concern’) on the IUCN Red List.

Bumpersticker from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, courtesy Joe Prins.

Bumpersticker from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, courtesy Joe Prins.

Polar bears had recovered from previous decades of wanton over-hunting — by all measures used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, they were a conservation success story.

Why did the IUCN and Arctic governments not break up the PBSG back in 1996? Leaving the group intact once polar bears were down-graded to ‘least concern’ simply made its members desperate to justify their existence. That’s precisely what we’ve seen over the last 20 years — PBSG members working tirelessly to ensure the organization didn’t go extinct.

pbsg logo

In fact, polar bears are in no more danger of extinction now than they were in 1996, despite dedicated efforts of the PBSG to convince the world otherwise. Take a look at the history and see if you come to a different conclusion.
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Kara Sea: first-ever polar bear count suggests about 3,200 bears live there

The first-ever population estimate for polar bears in the Kara Sea is an astonishing 3,200 bears (range 2,700-3,500). Russian researchers report the results in a new paper (Matishov et al. 2014, in English).

Kara Sea_PBSG

Polar bear counts were made during late winter/early spring (approximately January to April) from ice-breakers between 1997 and 2013. Females with cubs (whether one or two) were noted. The counts were extrapolated to give a total for the entire region (as is usual for all such surveys).

The question is, will the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) consider this new polar bear count to be reliable or complete enough to include in their next IUCN assessment?

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Challenging NOAA’s “Arctic Report Card 2014” on polar bears

NOAA’s list of purported evidence for harm being caused to polar bears by Arctic warming is short and weak. It puts the gloomiest spin possible on the current well-being of an animal with all the earmarks of a healthy, well-distributed species.

Arctic report card 2014 screencap_Dec 18 2014

This year, polar bears are virtually the only species that NOAA mentions in their Arctic Report Card – they’ve put all their icon-eggs in one leaky basket [what happened to walrus??]. But polar bears are doing so well that to make an alarming case for polar bears as victims of Arctic warming, many important caveats had to be left out or misrepresented. Some details given are simply wrong.

This year’s polar bear chapter was penned by IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group chairman Dag Vongraven (you might recall his email to me earlier this year) and a polar bear conservation activist from Polar Bears International (whose battle cry for donations is Save Our Sea Ice!”), Geoff York.

I challenge their four weak talking points one by one below.

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Status of Canadian polar bear populations has been changed – more good news

According to maps dated June 2014, Environment Canada (EC) has changed the trend status of several Canadian subpopulations — without any announcement or publicly-available documents explaining the basis of the changes.

Figure 3. "Series of Circumpolar Polar Bear Subpopulation and Status Trend Maps 2010, 2013 & 2014" Note the asterisk below the 2014 map, which is dated "June 2014" and is different in its status assessment from the one released in February 2013 by the PBSG. Original here.

Figure 1. Environment Canada’s “Map 4: Series of Circumpolar Polar Bear Subpopulation and Status Trend Maps 2010, 2013 & 2014.” Original here.

And would it surprise you to learn that virtually all of these status changes reveal more good news about polar bears?
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Are Polar Bears Really Endangered?

Christina Wu at the Urban Times (July 3, 2014) recently asked this question. She came up with a surprisingly balanced argument but some predictable responses from IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) biologists. As a consequence, she overlooked some critical facts that make a big difference to the answer.

Figure 1. Are polar bears really endangered? The US Fish and Wildlife Service thinks so, but only because Steven Amstrup, based on a computer model projecting sea ice out to 2050, said so (Amstrup et al. 2007). This information has been used by the Center for Biological Diversity and other NGOs, like WWF and Polar Bears International (where Amstrup is now employed), to solicit donations.

Figure 1. Predictions of polar bear population declines by 2050 are being used by the Center for Biological Diversity, WWF and Polar Bears International to solicit donations.

UPDATED 18 May 2015 – see below.

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IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group says its global population estimate was “a qualified guess”

Last week (May 22), I received an unsolicited email from Dr. Dag Vongraven, the current chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

pbsg logo

The email from Vongraven began this way:

Dr. Crockford

Below you’ll find a footnote that will accompany a total polar bear population size range in the circumpolar polar bear action plan that we are currently drafting together with the Parties to the 1973 Agreement. This might keep you blogging for a day or two.” [my bold]

It appears the PBSG have come to the realization that public outrage (or just confusion) is brewing over their global population estimates and some damage control is perhaps called for. Their solution — bury a statement of clarification within their next official missive (which I have commented upon here).

Instead of issuing a press release to clarify matters to the public immediately, Vongraven decided he would let me take care of informing the public that this global estimate may not be what it seems.

OK, I’ll oblige (I am traveling in Russia on business and finding it very hard to do even short posts – more on that later). The footnote Vongraven sent is below, with some comments from me. You can decide for yourself if the PBSG have been straight-forward about the nature of their global population estimates and transparent about the purpose for issuing it.
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Climate bullying echoes the expulsion of Mitch Taylor from Polar Bear Specialist Group

A lone polar bear walking on ice [Kathy Crane (NOAA) photo].  We'll call this a metaphor for the expulsion of Mitch Taylor from the PBSG after the Group switched from emphasizing unregulated over-hunting as the primary threat to polar bear conservation to global warming.

Kathy Crane (NOAA) photo

Swedish meteorologist Lennart Bengtsson today declared his resignation from the Academic Advisory Board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which he joined only three weeks ago, because of bullying by his colleagues. His email letter reads, in part:

“I had not expecting such an enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life. Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship etc. I see no limit and end to what will happen. It is a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy. I would never have expecting anything similar in such an original peaceful community as meteorology.”

See WUWT for the email in its entirety, GWPF response, and other reactions (and more here).

Absolutely shameful. Alas, the reprehensible behaviour displayed by Bengtsson’s colleagues also goes on within the polar bear research community: those that refuse to parrot the “consensus” are quickly punished.

Remember Mitch Taylor and his expulsion in 2009 from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group? His “crime” was objecting to the PBSG using weak evidence about future threats of global warming to have the conservation status of polar bears changed to ‘threatened’ even though populations were currently healthy. Details below for those who don’t know the story, or have forgotten.

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Polar bear status changes in 2013 deconstructed, with a map to the good news

You can’t figure out what’s going on with status updates from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) without deconstructing the spin and the 2013 update is no exception. Here’s my travel guide, with a map, to the good news.

Polar Bear Subpopulations 19_2013 updates_March 20 2014_sm

I’ve finally had a chance to go through all of the details provided with the 2013 PBSG status table (pdf here). It’s just about all good news, once you wade through the spin. Numbers aside, out of the 13 populations for which some kind of data exist, five populations are now classified by the PBSG as ‘stable’ (two more than 2009), one is still increasing, and three have been upgraded from ‘declining’ to ‘data deficient’ (I explain below why this is a promotion).

That leaves four that are still considered ‘declining’- two of those judgments are based primarily on concerns of overhunting, and one is based on a statistically insignificant decline that may not be valid and is being re-assessed (and really should have been upgraded to ‘data deficient’). That leaves only one population – Western Hudson Bay – where PBSG biologists tenaciously blame global warming for all changes to polar bear biology, and even then, the data supporting that conclusion is still not available.

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2013 PBSG polar bear status table information in one document

As I pointed out on Valentine’s Day, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) has released a revised population estimate for polar bears of 18,349 (range 13,071-24,238), based on a new status table posted February 14, 2014.

PBSG status-table-2013_Feb 14 2014_intro

In that February 14th post, I also pointed out that as for the 2005 and 2009/2010 status tables, the PBSG did not add up the columns and give the totals — you had to do that yourself, which is how I got the numbers above (last week, I made a couple of graphs that show changes over time in their status table estimates). Oddly enough, there is now no mention of an official global polar bear estimate anywhere on the PBSG website.

In addition — and the point of this post — is that to see the details of how and why the PBSG biologists arrived at the population estimates and the status assessments they present (with references), you have to click on the hyperlinked title of each separate subpopulation in the table. While they made a one-page black and white summary of the online colour table available as a pdf (linked at the bottom of the page), they did not make the assessment details from the status table available in pdf format.

So I did it myself, via copy/paste into a Word document that I converted to a searchable pdf, without editorial comment except that I included the totals given above and noted a few glaringly obvious omissions (see below). It took me all of 30 minutes.

I offer it here for more effective scrutiny, convenient reference and archival purposes — because the way it stands now, the online table could disappear tomorrow without any hard-copy evidence of the information hyperlinked within it.

UPDATE February 26, 2014 I checked the PBSG website this morning and the omissions I noted below that were present a few days ago have been fixed. I did not receive a reply to my email notification of the issue. An updated pdf is now available.

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