Tag Archives: IUCN

Retraction request to Bioscience: FOIA emails document another harsh criticism of Amstrup’s 2007 polar bear model

Today I sent a letter to the editors of the journal Bioscience requesting retraction of the shoddy and malicious paper by Harvey et al. (Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy) published online last week.

The letter reveals information about the workings of the polar bear expert inner circle not known before now, so grab your popcorn.

Harvey et al. 2018 in press climate denial by proxy using polar bears_Title

I have copied the letter below, which contains emails obtained via FOIA requests to the US Geological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, E&E Legal, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic (USFWS request; USGS request) and sent to me by lawyer Chris Horner in 2014, unsolicited. I reveal some of them now, with his permission (most of the emails are boring, involving mostly technical topics not relevant to anything, as might be expected).

The emails in question, sent in 2014, pertain to preparations by three members of the Polar Bear Specialist Group for the IUCN Red List assessment due in 2015 (Kristin Laidre, University of Washington, Eric Regehr, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Østein Wiig, Museum of Natural History, University of Olso), and Steven Amstrup (formerly head of the polar bear research at the US Geological Survey, now “head scientist” for conservation organization Polar Bears International.

They include frank discussions about a harsh critique of Amstrup et al.’s 2007 report and 2008 paper used to support listing polar bears as ‘threatened’ on the US Endangered Species List. The criticisms come from modeling expert and chair of the IUCN Red List Standards and Petitions Subcommittee (which develops guidelines for threatened and endangered species assessments, and evaluates petitions against the red-listing of these species), H. Resit Akçakaya. The IUCN is the world’s leading conservation organization, of which the PBSG is a part.

These records are a damning indictment that the “best available science” was not used to assess conservation status of polar bears under the ESA in 2008 and 2014 and show that I am not the only scientist who thinks Amstrup’s model is fatally flawed. The letter is copied in full below, the emails are copied at the end. A file of all of the entire pertinent email thread is available as a pdf below. Here’s a sample:

Wiig to Laidre_9 May 2014 follow up to Lunches with Resit_first part_redacted highlighted

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IUCN PBSG insists the 2015 Barents Sea polar bear count was not an increase

Similar to the spin on the 2013 Baffin Bay/Kane Basin polar bear population survey, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group now insists the latest count of the Barents Sea subpopulation is not evidence of an increase in numbers since 2004, as the leader of the study announced in 2015.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This is Part 2 of the big surprises in the latest version of the polar bear status table published by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) on 30 March 2017. See last post here regarding the PBSG population size estimates that no longer concur with the 2015 Red List assessment, including the global total — even though PBSG members wrote the report (Wiig et al. 2015, and its Supplement).

Here I want to focus on the results of subpopulation surveys that were made public after the 2015 Red List assessment was published, particularly the Barents Sea estimate.

While the 2013 Baffin Bay and Kane Basin estimates (SWG 2016) have been added to the new PBSG table, any suggestion that these might indicate population increases are strong discounted. Similarly, contrary to initial reports by the principal investigators of the survey, the PBSG insist that the Barents Sea population has not actually increased since 2004, which you may or many not find convincing.

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IUCN Specialist Group now rejects polar bear numbers it used for 2015 IUCN Red List review

Is there a mutiny in the works between the IUCN Red List and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) over polar bear population estimates or has there simply been a breach of ethics? What else explains the fact that some of the subpopulation estimates used by the PBSG to support the status of ‘vulnerable’ for the IUCN Red List in 2015 are unacceptable to them in 2017? And why are the PBSG refusing to embrace the Red List global estimate of 22,000-31,000?

2015 IUCN Red List estimates vs IUCN PBSG 2017

The latest version of the IUCN PBSG status table was posted online 30 March 2017 without fanfare or even a note on their home page. It seems the result came from much discussion at their official meeting last summer (June 2016) that they say continued into early March 2017.

2017 population status update early March headline

PBGS members voted to reject four subpopulation estimates used in the 2015 Red List polar bear status review  — even though the inclusion of those numbers was required in order for the Red List status of ‘vulnerable’ to be upheld. The group has also chosen not to update their global population page with the Red List estimate of 22,000-31,000.

And surprise, surprise — now that only one subpopulation out of nineteen worldwide has shown a recent decline, the PBSG have removed the “trend” columns from their summary table for subpopulations.

Welcome to conservation ‘science’ practiced by IUCN polar bear specialists.
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Global polar bear population size is about 28,500 when updates are included

Polar bear numbers have risen since 2005, no matter how you look at it:

Svalbard polar bear Jon Aars_Norsk Polarinstitutt

USGS estimated 24,500 (average) polar bears in 2005.

IUCN estimated 26,500 (average of 22,000-31,000) in 2015
(assessment completed in July, released in November).

Subpopulation surveys completed or reported after July 2015 (Baffin Bay, Kane Basin, Barents Sea) added ~2,000 bears.

This brings the adjusted average total at 2015 to ~28,500.

This may not be a statistically significant increase but it is also not the catastrophic decline that was predicted to occur in association with the abrupt drop of summer sea ice in 2007 to a new average of about 3-5 mkm2 [updated 1 June 2017].

Crockford 2017_Slide 12 screencap

Explained in full in this published paper, pgs 20-21:

Crockford, S.J. 2017 V3. 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 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

 

New paper asks: Has recent sea ice loss caused polar bear populations to crash?

A paper published today finds that predictions of polar bear population crashes due to summer sea ice loss are based on a scientifically unfounded assumption.

crockford-2017-title-page-graphic

[The graphic above was created by me from the title page and two figures from the paper]

Specifically, this paper of mine addresses the basic premise upon which predicted population declines linked to modeled habitat loss made by polar bear specialists back in 2006 and 2008 (by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, USFWS), and concludes that when assessed as a testable hypothesis against data collected since then, it must be rejected.

The forum for this paper is PeerJ Preprints,  which I found while looking for recent research papers about ringed seals. I discovered that Canadian ringed seal biologist Steven Ferguson recently used this service, which is free, open access, accepts review commentary, and will show up on Google and Google Scholar searches.

Ferguson et al. 2016. Demographic, ecological and physiological responses of ringed seals to an abrupt decline in sea ice availability. DOI:10.7287/peerj.preprints.2309v1 Pdf here. https://peerj.com/preprints/2309/

I decided that if this publication forum was good enough for Ferguson and his Arctic research community, it was good enough for me.

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/  (pdf here).

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IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group website still silent on 2015 Red List assessment

It’s now been 11 months since the IUCN Red List announced the completion of a new conservation assessment for polar bears – but you wouldn’t know that if you visited the website of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

pbsg-website-notice_home-page-2016-oct-18

Back in May 2016, I wrote to the folks at the IUCN Red List asking them why the PBSG had not yet added a link to their website regarding the 19 November 2015 update to the Red List polar bear assessment (submitted by PBSG members in July 2015), a shortcoming I first notice in December 2015. I also inquired why the IUCN Red List folks were not taking the PBSG to task for their failure to keep the public informed of this new development.

After a wait of more than 6 weeks (23 June), I finally received a reply. The Red List official accepted as reasonable the PBSG excuse that since a link to the IUCN Red List was present on their home page as an icon (here), a direct link to the actual Red List polar bear assessment was not necessary. He was informed by the PBSG that the website upgrade had simply taken longer than expected but that it would be completed by the end of July.

And yet, here it is – almost three months later and still no revised website – and more importantly, still no mention of the 2015 Red List assessment update, see screencap above taken 18 October 2016 (which has been up since 14 January 2016).

Note that my complaint is not that the website upgrade has taken longer than expected (doesn’t it always?) – it’s about the continued refusal to provide a simple link to the 2015 Red List assessment at the top of their “News” feature which sits prominently on their home page.

The PBSG is considered the scientific authority on polar bears and in my opinion, the fact that for 11 months their website has lacked a link to the 2015 Red List assessment (which contains many significant changes, including a larger population estimate, a revised population trend, and a prediction of future change with error bars) raises concerns about transparency, potential bias, and lack of accountability of the PBSG organization – and displays a similar kind of contempt for the public that its chairman revealed back in 2014 when he said that population size estimates were “simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand.”

Copies of my email exchange with the Red List associate who answered my inquiry are below – decide for yourself if I’m over-reacting.

UPDATE 22 Nov. 2016: A cursory check of the PBSG website today revealed that a few days ago (16 Nov. 2016) the PBSG Chairman finally did what I have been suggesting for almost a year: post a simple notice and link to the 2015 IUCN Red List polar bear assessment.

A simple line in the NEWS section of the home page:

pbsg-website_home-page-2016-nov-16-news-red-list

They even added a short notice with links to the documents (screen cap below).

pbsg-website-redlist-news-notice_2016-nov-16

Yes, pretty much exactly what I suggested in January. I’d hazard a guess I wasn’t the only one complaining.

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Terrestrial food fight amongst polar bear researchers reflects political differences

With a few big guns on one side and some fringe folk on the other, a dichotomy of opinion has developed amongst polar bear researchers regarding whether or not consumption of land-based foods is making a difference to polar bear survival (or is likely to in the future).

Polar bears eating terrest foods WHB_Rockwell press release

It’s been going on for a while now. Last year, two US Geological Survey members of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) apparently got fed up with the scatter-shot of papers promoting terrestrial foods as a possible salvation for polar bears (e.g. Iles et al. 2013;  Iverson et al. 2014; Rockwell and Gormezano 2013a, 2013b). In April, they published a canon volley of a paper meant to blow all that ‘polar-bears-might-survive’ talk out of the water once and for all (Rode et al. 2015).

Note that although the PBSG didn’t bother to update their website with the IUCN Red List assessment when it came out last November, they had a link up to the USGS terrestrial feeding paper within 16 days (with an editorial summary in the “NEWS” section as well as a listing of the paper in the “RECOMMENDED READING” section). As I suggest below, this difference in treatment may not be a coincidence.

However, another group of non-PBSG researchers  haven’t given up just yet, as shown by the title chosen for the most recent news report (Alaska Dispatch News, 16 June 2016) on the just-finished International Bear Conference:

Want to know how a changing climate is affecting polar bears? Look at what they’re eating.

Apparently, Jeff Welker, a University of Alaska Anchorage researcher who is co-author on two recent papers on the subject of polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods (Tartu et al. 2016 and Rogers et al. 2015), gave a presentation at the conference that raised this topic yet again. His talk came on the heels of an earlier presentation by Todd Atwood, who suggested Southern Beaufort polar bears might benefit from staying onshore to eat left-over whale scraps instead of staying on the sea ice during the summer (even though he had no data to support that opinion – as I discussed in this post).

Here’s the question: is this dispute really about what polar bears eat or don’t eat when they’re on land – or is it symptomatic of the underlying politics of polar bears? [CBC documentary video by that name here]
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