Tag Archives: Polar Bear Specialist Group

Biggest PBS stories of 2013 involved polar bear experts fudging data

The two top posts I published this year had one thing in common – they exposed polar bear researchers dodging full disclosure of scientific information in a way that outraged a lot of people. These two posts still draw a regular crowd of readers.

#1. “Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001” (published July 15, 2013) – 8,786 views as of December 30.

#2. “Ian Stirling’s latest howler: the polar bear who died of climate change” (August 7, 2013) – 7,872 views as of December 30.

[Note that #3 was the summary essay, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (February 26, 2013), at 5,491 views. Dr. Matt Ridley wrote a foreword introducing that essay (“We should be listening to Susan Crockford”) that appeared in Canada’s Financial Post]

On this last day of the year, I thought I’d make an attempt to put these results into a wider perspective.

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WWF and cohorts barred from Moscow polar bear forum

Despite the fact that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) apparently provided a significant portion of the funding for the recently concluded International Forum on Conservation of Polar Bears (December 3-6, Moscow), it appears in the end they and their NGO cohorts were prevented from having an undue amount of influence at the meeting. For that we can thank the delegates of the five Arctic nations: three cheers for common sense!

This news did not emerge until late yesterday (Friday, Dec. 6), after the meeting had concluded: no mention was made of NGOs being excluded in the press releases and stories written before then. For example, see IUCN story, Dec. 5; WWF story, Dec. 4; Times of India report, Dec. 5 and this Arctic Journal story Dec. 6. There was nothing in any of them about NGOs and journalists being barred from parts of the meeting they thought they would be allowed to attend.

Note that biologist Mitch Taylor, booted-out of the Polar Bear Specialist Group because he did not agree with the group’s position on global warming, attended as part of the Canadian contingent (see list at the end of this post), which was a bit of a surprise. However, the exclusion from the meeting of WWF and their buddies is the big news as far as I’m concerned.

[The media seems more interested in the fallout from a twitter message sent on the final day of the meeting by Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq — more on that in my next post].

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Polar bear habitat update, end of November 2013

Freeze-up in the Arctic (~October-November) is important to polar bears because for those animals that have spent the ice-free period on shore (not all do), it marks the end of their summer fast — they can finally resume seal hunting.

Polar bears in the most southern regions, like Southern Hudson Bay, Western Hudson Bay, and Davis Strait (see Fig. 1), routinely experience the longest ice-free period. As these bears all spend the summer on shore, they appreciate a timely return of the ice.

 Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few extra labels added. I’ve rotated the original map 90 degrees (right) to make it easier to relate to the ice maps below. WH is Western Hudson Bay. Courtesy PBSG.  Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few extra labels added. I’ve rotated the original map 90 degrees (right) to make it easier to relate to the ice maps below. WH is Western Hudson Bay; SB is Southern Beaufort. Courtesy PBSG. Click to enlarge.

Southern Hudson Bay bear populations routinely experience an ice-free season that is just as long as it is for Western Hudson Bay bears. However, Southern Hudson Bay polar bears numbers have remained stable over the last 30 years. Some folks insist that Western Hudson Bay bear numbers are shrinking to a worrisome degree, despite indications that the recent decline could be nothing more than a return to sustainable levels after a rapid population increase in the late 20th century (similar to changes documented for the Davis Strait and Barents Sea subpopulations).

Have a look at how sea ice – essential polar bear hunting habitat – has developed within these regions over the last 10 days or so (end of November 2013) and how November 2013 compares to November 1979. The ice maps tell the freeze-up story.
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International polar bear forum Moscow, Dec. 3-6

International Forum on Conservation of Polar Bears
December 3-6, Moscow.

[Updated November 30, 2013]
If you’ve wondered why there’s been so much polar bear hype circulating over the last couple of weeks, the reason is almost certainly this upcoming meeting.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of an international agreement to protect polar bears from commercial and unregulated sport hunting. Next week, the five Arctic nations that signed the original agreement will meet again, in Moscow, to renew their vows.

Polar bear forum_Moscow_Goals and objectives_01

One of stated goals of the meeting is to redefine the original agreement, which focused on over-hunting (see the complete draft agenda here). Can you guess what the changes will involve?
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Challenging “save the polar bear” propaganda

[Updates: Note correction to point 6 and links added at the end of the post]

Polar Bears International has mustered the UK newspaper, The Guardian, to provide free publicity for a “save the polar bear” propaganda event coming up tomorrow, November 6.

From The Guardian Environment Blog:

“On Wednesday, 6 November at 10am EST and 3pm GMT you will have a chance to ask a scientist [Steven Amstrup] and a conservationist [Krista Wright] about the latest research on the state of polar bears – and the efforts to protect them.”

The “participants” of this webchat are Polar Bears International (PBI) employees. PBI is a lobbyist organization that uses its influence to pressure politicians and supposedly impartial scientific organizations, like the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), to make decisions that fit their agenda. The PBI rallying cry is “Save Our Sea Ice.They are committed to promoting legislation to curtail supposed effects of anthropogenic global warming and are using polar bears as a tool to do so.

Dr. Steve Amstrup is now a full-time, professional activist and spokesperson for PBI (Chief Scientist and Vice President”), a job he took on after a long career as a polar bear biologist. Arranging “webchats” like this is part of the job he is now paid to do.

Krista Wright has a Bachelors degree in Outdoor Education and has worked for NGOs for more than 20 years. She joined PBI in 2009 and is now the Executive Director (i.e., an administrator). She is described as “a passionate conservationist who is deeply concerned about the effects of global warming on polar bears, the Arctic, and the planet.She brings emotion to this event, not science.

Below I dissect some of the fear-mongering background presented at The Guardian, one point at a time; Guardian quotes are in italics, numbered; my responses are below, with links to pertinent previous posts that are fully referenced:

[Links to video and the webchat Q & A have been added at the end of this post as updates]

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Polar bear cannibalism and sea ice, the spring of 1976

Remember Ian Stirling’s claim that late freeze up in Western Hudson Bay in 2009 was forcing polar bears to resort to cannibalism (here and here), with gut-wrenching images and video provided for the media? Or Steve Amstrup’s claim for a similar phenomenon in the Southern Beaufort in 2004?

I pointed out that Stirling’s claim was way overblown and that Amstrup’s incidents were almost certainly the result of heavy ice in the spring (not low ice in summer), similar to the heavy ice conditions and polar bear starvation documented in the same region back in 1974-1976.

It turns out that the heavy ice conditions documented in the Eastern Beaufort in the mid-1970s had much broader effects on polar bears and ringed seals than has been appreciated.
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Lancaster Sound – a rarely-mentioned region with a large polar bear population

The polar bear subpopulation designated as Lancaster Sound lies at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian High Arctic (Fig.1). We rarely hear about it but this region has one of the largest polar bear populations anywhere in the Arctic – only the Barents Sea and Foxe Basin have higher estimated population sizes.

Figure 1. Lancaster Sound, magenta. Map courtesy Polar Bear Specialist Group, additional labels added.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations with Lancaster Sound marked. Map courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, additional labels added.

Lancaster Sound includes the communities of Arctic Bay on northwestern Baffin Island and Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. Devon Island, which lies on the northern boundary, has no permanent communities, although two research stations are present (see here and here). A more detailed map showing the exact boundaries is available in Vongraven and Peacock (2011).

The eastern portion of Lancaster Sound is generally clear of ice by late summer (hence the Northwest Passage) but the western third of the region not only retains pack ice later in the season but some multiyear ice remains throughout the year.

The proximity of Lancaster Sound to Baffin Bay and the eastern Northwest Passage (Fig.2) undoubtedly exposed polar bears there to hunting by European whalers during the 1800s and early 1900s (see previous post here, especially Fig. 5), from which the population appears to have recovered.

On the other hand, the proximity of Lancaster Sound to oil and gas reserves further north in the High Arctic generated much-needed funds for polar bear biologists in the mid-to-late 1970s to collect essential baseline data for the entire region (Schweinsburg et al. 1982; Stirling et al. 1979, 1984; Stirling and Latour 1978).

Figure 2. The main Northwest Passage route starts at Lancaster Sound and runs east through Parry Channel because these waterways routinely clear of ice in late summer. The approximate boundary of the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation (area ~490,000 km2) is marked in yellow; POW is Prince of Wales Island. Map from Wikipedia, labels added.

Figure 2. The main Northwest Passage route starts at Lancaster Sound and runs east through Parry Channel because these waterways routinely clear of ice in late summer. The approximate boundary of the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation is marked in yellow; POW is Prince of Wales Island. Map from Wikipedia, labels added. Click to enlarge.

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Polar bears at Kaktovik, Alaska not stranded due to retreating ice

“I’ve lived here all my life and there are more bears every year. I read stories about polar bears being on the brink of extinction because of global warming, look out of my window and start to laugh.” Tori Sims, Kaktovik (Mail on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2013).

As you can see, Kaktovik is in the news again. This tiny community sits on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, on Barter Island on the North Slope of Alaska (Fig. 1). It lies within the Southern Beaufort polar bear subpopulation, which has been classified as “declining” by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (Obbard et al. 2010).

The determination of “declining” was based on a small dip in population numbers between 2001 and 2006 (not statistically significant), plus a decline in body size and condition, and smaller litter sizes documented between 1986 and 2006 (Rode et al. 2010). A new population survey is underway.

Figure 1. Kaktovik, Alaska, from Google maps.

Figure 1. Kaktovik, Alaska, from Google maps. Click to enlarge.

There have been suggestions that bears become “stranded” along the Alaska coast near Kaktovik because of retreating sea ice, and that more bears present in this area in recent years are an indication that they are in trouble due to global warming.

I’ve compiled some quotes, maps, and links to stories, photos and videos about Kaktovik polar bears to show that this claim is false.

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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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How and why great news about Chukchi polar bears has been suppressed

A new peer-reviewed report (Rode et al. 2014 [in print] 2013, accepted), released last month (announced here), documents the fact that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea are doing better than virtually any other population studied, despite significant losses in summer sea ice over the last two decades – even though the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) said this population was declining (Obbard et al. 2010).

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

Rather than this good news being shouted far and wide, what we’ve seen so far is a mere whisper. The strategy for suppressing the information appears to have several parts: make it hard to find; don’t actively publicize it; down-play the spectacularly good nature of the news; minimize how wrong they were; keep the focus on the future.

Something similar happened with the newly-published paper on Davis Strait bears (Peacock et al. 2013, discussed here and here) but the news there wasn’t quite so shockingly different from expected. The suppression of good news stands in marked contrast to anything with a hint of bad news, which gets reported around the world — for example, Andrew Derocher and colleagues and their prepare now to save polar bears” policy paper in February, 2013.

US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr, co-investigator of the Chukchi study and co-author of the newly-published report, wrote an announcement about the paper. It wasn’t a real press release, since it was not actually sent to media outlets. It was a statement, with a brief summary of the paper, posted on a regional US Fish & Wildlife website, with no mention of lead author Karyn Rode. Not surprisingly, lack of active promotion = no media coverage.

The posted announcement also down-played how well the Chukchi bears are doing. In fact, the news documented in the paper is much better than any of them let on: Chukchi polar bears are doing better than virtually all other populations studied.

But Regehr also had to do some damage control to counter the evidence this paper contains of how wrong they had all been — not only about the Chukchi population today but about their predictions for polar bears in the future.

After all, the computer models used to predict a dire future for polar bears combined the Chukchi Sea with the Southern Beaufort, as having similar ice habitats (“ice ecoregions”). The published paper and Regehr’s statement now say these two regions are very different and that polar bear response to loss of sea ice is “complex” rather than a simple matter of less summer ice = harm to polar bears. Regehr goes on to say that polar bear scientists expected this would happen. I call total BS on this one, which I explain in full later (with a map).

Finally, Regehr’s statement emphasizes that good news for 1 subpopulation out of 19 today should not be celebrated because the overall future for polar bears — prophesied by computerized crystal balls — is bleak. Focus on the future, they say. Did they forget that for years they’ve been telling us that polar bears are already being harmed and that this foreshadows what’s to come? Now we have the results of yet another peer-reviewed study showing bears not being harmed by declines in summer ice (see the full list here).

So, in the end, all of this double-talk and contradiction is not just about suppressing this particular paper. There’s much more at stake.

The Rode et al. Chukchi paper is strong evidence that their predictions of a grim future for polar bears – based on theoretical responses to summer sea ice declines that should already be apparent – have been refuted by their own studies. It’s no wonder they want to keep the media away from this story.

Details below.  [Update September 11, 2013: another news outlet picks up the story, see Point 2 below]

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