Tag Archives: Peacock

Foxe Basin aerial survey – a watershed moment for polar bear research, Part 1

While researching the population status of Foxe Basin polar bears I came across an issue that seems to have garnered relatively little attention outside the polar bear community – Inuit objections to the handling of polar bears during mark-recapture surveys and the effect of this on polar bear research in Canada.

 Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.


Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.

Foxe Basin is a large polar bear subpopulation region that encompasses the northern portion Hudson Bay into the area west of Baffin Island, see map below (courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group).

FoxeBasin_PBSG website_Oct 2013Mark-recapture research methods routinely used by polar bear biologists became especially contentious in Foxe Basin during a population study initiated in 2007/2008, with Inuit residents voicing objections and biologists defending its practice. The following year, the mark-recapture effort was halted and an aerial survey took its place.

The aerial survey has been completed and a report on it was released in 2012 (Stapleton et al. 2012; see previous post for results) but we’ve heard very little about what happened to that mark-recapture study and why the Government of Nunavut pulled the plug on it. I plan to change that with the next couple of posts.

I’m not claiming to understand the nuances of the story because I’m only going by available documents. However, I think it’s important to shine some light on this issue since it has clearly changed the shape of polar bear research in Canada.
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Foxe Basin polar bear status – another stable population

Foxe Basin_PBSG

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulation regions defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group, Foxe Basin marked.

Foxe Basin is a large subpopulation region (Fig. 1), with a total area of 1.18 million square km (Vongraven and Peacock 2011). It comprises Northern Hudson Bay and western Hudson Strait, and the area between western Baffin Island and eastern Melville Peninsula, with a large island (Southampton Island) in the middle (Figs. 2 and 3).

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

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Thriving Foxe Basin and Davis Strait polar bears threaten nesting sea birds

UPDATE February 11, 2014. A reader (Kevin, at “Afton’s Waterfowl List”) has pointed out an error in Fig. 3, where I inadvertently labeled the bars on the upper graph as ending in 2011 instead of 2012 (the Pembroke graph ends at 2011. sigh..). I have corrected the figure and the text that refers to it, but do not believe it affects the overall conclusion. See for yourself. Thanks Kevin — and Alan for getting in touch!

Another round of press release inspired news stories emerged last week insisting that polar bear predation on ground-nesting birds during the summer ice-free period is evidence that they are nutritionally stressed by global warming.

A few weeks ago it was snow goose eggs in Western Hudson Bay – this time it’s thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) and common eider (Somateria mollissima) eggs in Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait (e.g. see the story at Canada’s National Post and a short summary provided by Science [and it’s not even their paper!]). The source of the media attention this time is a newly-published paper by Samuel Iverson and colleagues (Iverson et al. 2014).

Figure 1. From Iverson et al. 2014 (their Fig.1), “map of the study area.” Most of the study sites are within the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation region (see Fig. 2 below), although the Ungava Peninsula (E), Ungava Bay (F) and Frobisher Bay (C) sites are in the Davis Strait subpopulation.

Figure 1. From Iverson et al. 2014 (their Fig.1), “map of the study area.” Most of the study sites are within the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation region (see Fig. 2 below), although the Ungava Peninsula (E), Ungava Bay (F) and Frobisher Bay (C) sites are in the Davis Strait subpopulation.

Polar bears have always preyed on ground-nesting sea bird and goose eggs while onshore (see Kelsey Eliasson’s take on the situation around Churchill, at his PolarBearAlley blog). The issue in this case is whether the increase in predation can be unquestionably blamed on reduced sea ice cover and nutritionally-stressed bears – that is, predation increases that correlate with year-to-year sea ice changes and bears in poor condition found consuming bird eggs.

As I did for the “polar bears eat more caribou and snow geese than they used to” press release, I refused to take the PR or the news stories at face value and went to the published paper and its supplemental data (it’s open access, see it for yourself here).

What I see in this paper is a spurious sea ice correlation and no data on the condition of the few bears observed consuming eggs. There is also no mention of the fact that polar bear numbers have increased in part of the study area (Davis Strait) or that bears in Foxe Basin and southern Davis Strait have been found to be in very good condition and reproducing well (Rode et al. 2014; Peacock et al. 2013). See my analysis below and judge for yourself.

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Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting postponed until 2014

[Update October 14, 2013: correction regarding Davis Strait population estimate, noted below]

I heard via the grapevine that the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) meeting, tentatively slated to be held this July (Obbard et al. 2010), has been postponed until 2014. [That will be the 16th Working Meeting, as they are called]

Word has it that shifting the meeting forward will allow the group time to put together a new population estimate that will incorporate recent survey results.

So which subpopulations are slated to be updated?

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Note that Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay are all similar in that they become ice-free by early fall (the September minimum) or before.

Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Courtesy the PBSG.

As far as I can determine, there are at least two that haven’t quite been finished: Baffin Bay and Southern Beaufort. The Baffin Bay survey was supposed to be completed this spring, so the numbers just need to be crunched. Southern Beaufort has a survey in progress, planned to continue through the fall of 2013.

Here are some comments on the 2012 Southern Beaufort field season (USFWS Newletter 2013:17):

“The number of polar bears observed in 2012 was high relative to similar surveys conducted over the past decade. During August and September surveys, the majority of bears were observed east of Prudhoe Bay, primarily near Kaktovik. Body condition appeared relatively normal for this time of year with most bears reported to be in average condition.” [my bold] [see previous post here re: Kaktovik bears]

There are new counts for Foxe Basin (estimated at ~2,580 bears, similar to the early 1990s estimate of ~2,200; Stapleton, Peacock and Garshelis 2012) and Western Hudson Bay (estimated at ~1,000 bears, similar to the 2004 estimate of ~935; Stapleton, Atkinson et al. 2012) based on aerial surveys. These numbers have not yet been incorporated into the global total, although the studies suggest both of those populations have been stable since the last survey.

CBC News (June 26, 2012):

“A study has found that the polar bear population in the Foxe Basin region of Nunavut is stable and the bears are in good health.

The territorial government did an aerial survey of the bear population in 2009 and 2010. The survey results show the population is about the same size as it was in 1990 – about 2,580 bears.” [my bold]

There is also the new population estimate for Davis Strait (Peacock et al. 2013) that needs to be incorporated into the global total – in this case, there has been an increase from the previous estimate (up from ~1,400 to ~2,158). [corrected Oct. 14 2013] The population increase for Davis Strait has already been incorporated into the current global estimate. The new numbers were available by 2009 (the time of the last PBSG meeting) but the peer-reviewed publications (with all of the pertinent details) were not produced until recently (2012-2013, discussed here and here).
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Baffin Bay polar bear status – waiting for the count

Here’s a quick summary of the status of Baffin Bay polar bears, a subpopulation I’ve not previously discussed in detail. Nothing especially earth-shattering here, except perhaps to wonder about the involvement of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a new helicopter survey of the region.

Baffin Bay (Fig. 1) is north of Davis Strait. It lies between western Greenland and Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic.

Unlike the other north/south neighbour-pair of Western/Southern Hudson Bay   (which I discussed previously), the sea ice history for Baffin Bay/Davis Strait is not as similar: Davis Strait bears have a much longer on-shore fast than Baffin Bay bears (see last post here). However, all four of these subpopulations have ‘seasonal sea ice’ – that is, the ice melts completely in late mid-to-late summer, forcing bears onshore for varying lengths of time until fall freeze-up.

Figure 1. The Baffin Bay subpopulation region lies north of Davis Strait (map on the left from Vongraven and Peacock 2011: Fig. 3) and management is shared between Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland. In total area, it covers 1.08 million km2 and its “suitable ice habitat in spring” (according to Taylor and Lee 1995) is 413,500 km,2 somewhat less than Davis Strait. The map on the right shows the sea ice extent at the end of March 2010 (NSIDC), the winter maximum.

Figure 1. The Baffin Bay subpopulation region lies north of Davis Strait (map on the left from Vongraven and Peacock 2011: Fig. 3) and management is shared between Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland. In total area, it covers 1.08 million km2 and its “suitable ice habitat in spring” (according to Taylor and Lee 1995) is 413,500 km2, somewhat less than Davis Strait. The map on the right shows the sea ice extent at the end of March 2010 (NSIDC), the winter maximum.

A peer-reviewed paper published last year (Rode et al. 2012) compared body condition vs. sea ice changes in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay (discussed here). But while that research contributed to an updated population estimate for Davis Strait (Peacock et al. 2013, discussed here), it did not do the same for Baffin Bay. This is likely because the body condition work in Baffin Bay was split between spring and fall, and it has already been determined that many Baffin Bay bears are offshore in the spring and not available for counting using shore-based methods.

That’s a shame, because the last population estimate was completed back in 1997 (Taylor et al. 2005) and it is now seriously out of date.

However, it appears the Government of Nunavut is currently in the process of surveying this region by helicopter, so a new population estimate should be available soon.

But this aspect of the survey might surprise you — a press release issued February 11, 2013 by WWF contained the following statement:

Results from the above-noted surveys will be completed and shared beginning in April 2013.

WWF made contributions of $82,000 to the Government of the Northwest Territories and $111,000 to the Government of Nunavut via Environment Canada, towards the total costs of these surveys. These funds were raised through the Arctic Home campaign from engaged Canadians and matched by The Coca-Cola Company.”  [my bold]

So, of the hundreds of millions the WWF pulls in from donations, they passed along less than $100,000 [$96,500 plus an equal contribution by Coca-Cola) to offset “the total costs of the survey.

We are not told what those total costs are, but I expect they run well over a million dollars for a multiyear/multi-region project like this, perhaps over two million. Which makes $96,500 rather a drop in the bucket. That might have paid for some of the jet fuel for the helicopters used for the survey, but probably not all of it.

Status details below.
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Davis Strait polar bears again: body condition declined while population increased

This is a short follow-up to my last post on Davis Strait polar bears.

Today I’ll highlight a paper published last year (Rode et al. 2012) that had three of the same co-authors as the Peacock et al. (2012) paper I discussed on Monday – Lily Peacock, Mitch Taylor, and Ian Stirling contributed to both papers. Rode et al. (2012) deals with the issue of body condition (relative degree of fatness) in polar bears vs. changing levels of sea ice over time, and if you’ll pardon the pun, adds even more weight to the conclusion that declines in summer sea ice do not necessarily spell the disaster for polar bears we have been told is inevitable.

A polar bear near Thule, NW Greenland. Note the decidedly chubby back end on this bear, who looks well prepared for winter. Photo by Robin Davies. [details at my Quote Archive, Featured Quote #6]

A polar bear in the summer of 2012 near Thule, NW Greenland (part of the Baffin Bay subpopulation). Note the decidedly chubby back end on this bear, who looks well prepared for winter. Photo by Robin Davies.
[details at my Quote Archive, Featured Quote #6]

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Signs that Davis Strait polar bears are at carrying capacity

Exciting news about polar bears in eastern Canada: the peer-reviewed paper on the Davis Strait subpopulation study has finally been published (Peacock et al. 2013). It concludes that despite sea ice having declined since the 1970s, polar bear numbers in Davis Strait have not only increased to a greater density (bears per 1,000 km2) than other seasonal-ice subpopulations (like Western Hudson Bay), but it may now have reached its ‘carrying capacity.’

This is great news. But where is the shouting from the roof-tops? This peer-reviewed paper (with its juicy details of method and analysis results), considered by some to be the only legitimate format for communicating science, was published February 19, 2013. No press release was issued that I could find and consequently, there was no news coverage. Funny, that.

There was a bit of shouting back in 2007 when the study ended and the preliminary population count was released – polar bear biologist Mitch Taylor is quoted in the Telegraph (March 9 2007) as saying:

“There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears.”

There was also a CBC news item in January 2007 and a Nunatsiaq|Online report in October 2009 when the official government report was completed. But these were all based on preliminary information and focused on the population increase only.

This new paper (Peacock et al. 2013) reveals that the story in Davis Strait is about more than simple population growth. Small wonder no one is drawing attention to it. Continue reading