Tag Archives: migration

First polar bear spotted off the ice in Western Hudson Bay is fat and healthy

One of the first of hundreds of polar bears expected to come off the sea ice of Hudson Bay along the west and south coasts was captured on video on 5 July. This is only the first wave, as there is still so much ice remaining that most of the bears are likely to remain offshore: not because there is so much food available (few seals are caught at this time of year) but because the ice is where they are most comfortable.

Churchill_first polar bear at Cape Churchill 5 July 2019 on explore dot org cam screencap

 

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Pacific walrus sob stories begin again

Now we have poor hunting conditions in the Bering Strait touted as evidence that “walrus migration patterns have changed” with the implication that this is because “…the past eight years have had the eight lowest amounts of summer sea ice on record” due to man-made global warming.

Walrus 2012 July USGS

A subsistence lifestyle is hard, particularly so if it depends on a highly mobile, migratory herd animal. Think Barren-ground Inuit caribou hunters, who often starved because herd sizes declined for a few years or moved unpredictably.

Many factors – seasonal weather, last year’s winter conditions, size of the herd, food supply – all affect where and when a migratory herd will move and the likelihood it will be positioned for optimal harvesting by hunters. Add another highly variable factor into that – Bering Sea ice – and you have a highly unpredictable food supply, especially if you sit in one spot (like on St. Lawrence Island) and expect that migratory herd animal to come within reach.

Hunting walrus from St. Lawrence Island depends on just the right combination of ice and winds. Too much ice is not good, too much open water is not good, and too much wind is not good.

Alaska Dispatch, courtesy the Associated Press, reports St. Lawrence natives are again short of walrus meat because of “warm temperatures”: “Warming temps push walrus north, leaving Alaska villages without traditional food source” (Rachel D’Oro, The Associated Press, August 6, 2015). And the caption of the above USGS (A. Sonsthagen) photo predictably implies all current hunting troubles can be blamed on climate channge:

“The walruses in this July 2012 file photo are hauled out in the Eastern Chukchi Sea. Walrus migration patterns have changed as sea ice and other environmental factors have shifted — and that’s spelled trouble for Alaska Native communities who hunt them for subsistence.”

The people of St. Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait that depend on walrus for subsistence have my sympathy, they indeed have a hard life – but this is not a tale of woe about the status of Pacific walrus and changing summer sea ice.

Bering Strait natives hunt walrus in spring, from mid-April to early June (Huntington et al. 2013). All indications are that walrus are moving differently than they used to in summer because the population is now very large.  As far as I know, there is no new population information on walrus that wasn’t available last year, when I covered this topic extensively (Crockford 2014; video below).


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Mass haulouts of female Pacific walrus as a sign of population health

Mass haulouts of female Pacific walrus and their calves in fall don’t happen all the time but they do occur. I recently pointed out (here and here) two instances of such incidents from the 1970s.

I said this provided evidence that the September 2014 incident reported in the media was not “a new phenomenon” for this region, as WWF spokepersons and Alaskan biologists have claimed (reiterated in this PBS interview).

Figure 1. Walrus females and calves hauled out on a beach in Svalbard, photo accompanying an October 6, 2014 news report in “Eye on the Arctic” of the rapidly increasing Atlantic walrus population there. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen/Barents Observer).

Figure 1. Walrus females and calves hauled out on a beach in Svalbard, photo accompanying an October 6, 2014 news report in “Eye on the Arctic” of the rapidly increasing Atlantic walrus population there. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen, Barents Observer).

One aspect of the recent occurrence of a large herd on an Alaskan beach that apparently needs reiterating is that the population of walruses declined rather markedly after a 1970s peak and has rebounded since. This suggests that huge herds of females and calves hauling out on beaches in the fall to feed might only be seen when the population is very large.
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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

Polar bear problems in N Hudson Bay not due to late freeze-up

The myth that northern Hudson Bay communities are having problems with polar bears this year because freeze-up is later than usual just won’t go away.

I discussed the well publicized craziness in Churchill last week (here and here), but there’s more. Polar bears are already leaving the shore of Northern Hudson Bay as the ice rapidly forms but I saw a story yesterday (dated late last week) that quoted a local official in Repulse Bay blaming their polar bear problems on late freeze-up.

I’ve written before about the peer-reviewed paper by polar bear researchers Seth Cherry and colleagues published earlier this year on breakup and freeze-up dates between 1991 and 2009. But perhaps the freeze-up data needs more emphasis. I’ve copied that graph again below, with notes, and added some ice maps. See for yourself.

Bottom line: A “late freeze-up” for northwestern Hudson Bay occurs when ice formation is delayed until early December or beyond. Freeze-up was nowhere near “late” this year, nor was the ice “slow to freeze.” It wasn’t last year either.
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