Tag Archives: PBSG

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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Death of the polar bear as climate change icon validates Mitch Taylor’s skepticism

You could call it karma — the death of the polar bear icon after the shameful hubris of polar bear experts back in 2009.

That year, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group booted 20-year member Mitch Taylor out of their organization, explaining that his skeptical views on human-caused global warming were “extremely unhelpful” to their polar bear conservation agenda.

Said chairman Andrew Derocher in his email to Taylor:  “Time will tell who is correct.”

It’s now clear that Mitch Taylor was right to be skeptical of sea ice models based on pessimistic climate change assumptions; he was also right to be more optimistic than his PBSG colleagues about the ability of polar bears to adapt to changing sea ice conditions (Taylor and Dowsley 2008), since the bears have turned out to be more resilient than even he expected.

Fat mother and cubs_Southern Beaufort April 2016_USGS

Fat polar bears — not starving ones — dominate photos taken in recent years. The total failure of polar bear numbers to crash as predicted in response to the abrupt decline in summer sea ice in 2007 and persistent low summer sea ice levels since then (Crockford 2017), is vindication for Mitch Taylor. It’s time someone said so.

More on the 2009 incident below.
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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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Experts’ vision of an ice-free summer is already wrong & benefitting polar bears

Polar bear populations in most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (CAA) must be booming, as they are elsewhere. That’s because the ‘experts’ were even more wrong in their predictions of future sea ice conditions than most people realize: they expected the CAA would remain choked with ice during a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer driven by human-caused global warming.


Wang and Overland 2012 fig 3b marked

Map presented by Wang and Overland (2012: Fig 3) shows what these experts thought a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer would look like, which they expected to occur by 2030 or so.

Look at the map from Wang and Overland (2012) above, which is what they thought a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer would look like in the year 2030 or so.

Wang and Overland used the same models used by USGS biologists to predict the future survival of polar bears based on habitat loss (Amstrup et al. 2007; Atwood et al. 2016; Durner et al. 2007, 2009). Note the thick ice in the CAA — what USGS experts call the ‘Archipelago’ sea ice ecoregion (denoted by white in the map), indicating ice about 1 metre thick (2-3 feet) — expected to remain at the height of summer in 2030.

[Earlier renditions of sea ice projections (e.g. ACIA 2005) show something similar. The second update of the ACIA released just yesterday (AMAP 2017, described here by the CBC) has prudently included no such firm predictions in their Summary for Policy Makers, just dire warnings of future catastrophe. But see the 2012 update.]


The problem is that ice in this region has been largely absent most summers since 2006, even though overall ice extent has been much more extensive than expected for a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer, as I show below.

This is not another “worse than we thought” moment (Amstrup et al. 2007) — this is sea ice models so wrong as to be useless: failed models used to inform future polar bear survival models that got the bears declared ‘threatened’ with extinction in the US in 2008 (Crockford 2017).

It also means polar bears are almost certainly doing much better than recent population counts indicate, since only one subpopulation out of the six in the CAA has recently been assessed. But since polar bear specialists have consistently underestimated the adaptability of this species and the resilience of the Arctic ecosystem to respond to changing conditions, it’s hard to take any of their hyperbole about the future of polar bears seriously. Continue reading

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).


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:


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


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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PBSG failure to acknowledge 2015 IUCN polar bear update drives the public here

It is now past the 15 June 2016 mark and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) has still not acknowledged the 2015 IUCN Red List update on the status of polar bears. See the screencap below, taken this morning.

PBSG at 16 June 2016

This notice has been up since 14 January 2016 and no reference or link to the November 2015 IUCN Red List update has been posted, even though PBSG members authored the report (pdf here)!

What they may not realize is that their silence just drives people who search the internet looking for up-to-date population and conservation status info on polar bears to this site. My posts on population size and conservation status have been the most popular posts since November.

It’s that kind of attention that has made this site so popular: PolarBearScience will reach 750,000 views within the next couple of weeks (see “Blog Stats” lower right) – that’s right, 3/4 million views in less than four years. More than 400,000 readers have come here since the end of July 2012 to find out what’s really going on in the world of polar bears. Continue reading