Tag Archives: population

International Polar Bear Day: a time to admit the species is not threatened with extinction due to reduced sea ice habitat

Times have changed: where once many scientists worried that polar bears could not survive an Arctic with 40% less ice, now the concern is that people of the Arctic might not be able to keep themselves safe from growing numbers of increasingly fearless bears.

International Polar Bear Day is tomorrow, 27 February. It’s a good time to reconsider polar bear conservation in light of current realities. Polar bears are not threatened with extinction by loss of sea ice habitat but continue to thrive in spite of it (Crockford 2017).

Polar bear Aug 2017 near area where June 19 2018 bear was spotted Gordy Kidlapik

Fat bear in August 2017 outside Arviat, Nunavut. Gordy Kidlapik photo.

Tomorrow, the 2018 State of the Polar Bear Report will be released. But for now, see some of the failed claims below.

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Derocher admits Western Hudson Bay polar bear population may not be declining

Earlier this year, I challenged a journalist to ask to see the data used by Andrew Derocher and his colleagues to support their repeated claims that Western Hudson Bay polar bears are having trouble surviving. It almost happened.

Polar bears_Gordon Court_Committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada Dec 2018

David Rose, writing for The Mail on Sunday, has produced an excellent feature on the conflict between Nunavut Inuit and biologists about polar bear management, got Andrew Derocher to tell the truth about current polar bear health and survival.

Or, to be more precise, to waffle a bit on his standard message of doom:

“Even Prof Derocher, who is convinced the bears’ long-term future is bleak, accepts that ‘the wheels are not coming off yet’, while ‘some bear populations are doing fine’. In West Hudson Bay, there has been ‘a recent period of stability’, he says, and though ‘we were seeing starving bears, starving cubs on land, that seems to have slowed down’. Then again, the computer models ‘are not great on the 5 – 10 year time-frame’, and it was possible that although the Arviat bears might look healthy now, they may be about to ‘fall off a cliff’.” [my bold]

This concession by Derocher suggests that Western Hudson Bay bears indeed are thriving, because he’s the guy who holds all the data. But he couldn’t help adding that disaster might be just around the corner.

But did he actually produce the data that show what’s been happening with cub survival or the body condition of females since 2004? Apparently not — but his admission that conditions are not as bleak as he continually portrays them suggests he is covering for data that says the same: polar bears in Western Hudson Bay are doing just fine and Inuit are right to be worried.

This may be as good as it gets unless the people of Nunavut can force Derocher to show his data.

Read the whole story here: “Why all you’ve been told about these polar bears could be WRONG: Animals driven to the edge of their natural habitat by shrinking ice have become one of the defining images of climate change, but Inuits who know the predators have a very different story.” (The Mail on Sunday, David Rose, 30 December 2018).

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Chukchi Sea polar bears number almost 3000 according to new survey results: update

The Chukchi Sea finally has a polar bear population estimate! According to survey results from 2016 only recently made public, about 2937 bears (1522-5944) currently inhabit the region, making this the largest subpopulation in the Arctic. This is exciting news — and a huge accomplishment — but the US Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the work has been oddly mum on the topic.

beaufort-bears_-suzanne-miller-usfws-3-af-2c-on-spit-1.jpg

Not only that, but an extrapolation of that estimate calculated by USFWS researchers for Chukchi plus Alaska (the US portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation) was estimated at 4437 (2283-9527), although with “significant uncertainty.” Nevertheless, it means the 2016 estimate for Alaska could be roughly three times what it was in 2010: a whopping 1500 or so, up from about 450 (or about 225-650) for the same area estimated during the last survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015: Fig. 5a).

Even if the real number for Alaska is only twice as large (~1000), that’s still a huge improvement. It would eliminate the Southern Beaufort as the only polar bear subpopulation in the Arctic to have shown a significant decline blamed on human-caused global warming (Crockford 2018). If the recovery is real, it means the 2004-2006 decline was a temporary fluctuation after all, just like previous declines in the region. I expect, however, that it will take a dedicated SB population survey for officials to concede that point.

There is not yet now a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. 2018 in prep, see update below), but the numbers were announced at the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears held at the end of July this year (AC SWG 2018) by Eric Regehr (formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as of 2017 at the University of Washington). [h/t to G.H.] This was the same report that raised the quota for subsistence hunting in the Chukchi from 58 to 85, based on these new figures, as I discussed last week.

Wrangel Island polar bear with cubs 2015 news story

From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.

Regehr was quoted as saying:

“Chukchi bears remain larger and fatter and have not seen downward trends in cub production and survival, according to new preliminary information on the health and numbers of bears.”

UPDATE 15 November 2018: The scientific paper describing the entirely new method (yes, yet another one: see Bromaghin et al. 2015) used to estimate the size of the Chukchi Sea population is now available (University of Washington press release here), in an open-access paper: Regher et al. 2018. News reports (see one here) spin the positive outcome as something that researchers expected all along but that’s simply not true. They expected Chukchi Sea bears and Southern Beaufort Sea bears to respond similarly to reduced amounts of summer sea ice, as explained here and in Crockford 2017).
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Chukchi Sea polar bears number almost 3000 according to new survey results

The Chukchi Sea finally has a polar bear population estimate! According to survey results from 2016 only recently made public, about 2937 bears (1522-5944) currently inhabit the region, making this the largest subpopulation in the Arctic. This is exciting news — and a huge accomplishment — but the US Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the work has been oddly mum on the topic.

beaufort-bears_-suzanne-miller-usfws-3-af-2c-on-spit-1.jpg

Not only that, but an extrapolation of that estimate calculated by USFWS researchers for Chukchi plus Alaska (the US portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation) was estimated at 4437 (2283-9527), although with “significant uncertainty.” Nevertheless, it means the 2016 estimate for Alaska could be roughly three times what it was in 2010: a whopping 1500 or so, up from about 450 (or about 225-650) for the same area estimated during the last survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015: Fig. 5a).

Even if the real number for Alaska is only twice as large (~1000), that’s still a huge improvement. It would eliminate the Southern Beaufort as the only polar bear subpopulation in the Arctic to have shown a significant decline blamed on human-caused global warming (Crockford 2018). If the recovery is real, it means the 2004-2006 decline was a temporary fluctuation after all, just like previous declines in the region. I expect, however, that it will take a dedicated SB population survey for officials to concede that point.

There is not yet now a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. 2018 in prep, see update below), but the numbers were announced at the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears held at the end of July this year (AC SWG 2018) by Eric Regehr (formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as of 2017 at the University of Washington). [h/t to G.H.] This was the same report that raised the quota for subsistence hunting in the Chukchi from 58 to 85, based on these new figures, as I discussed last week.

Wrangel Island polar bear with cubs 2015 news story

From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.

Regehr was quoted as saying:

“Chukchi bears remain larger and fatter and have not seen downward trends in cub production and survival, according to new preliminary information on the health and numbers of bears.”

UPDATE 15 November 2018: The scientific paper describing the entirely new method (yes, yet another one: see Bromaghin et al. 2015) used to estimate the size of the Chukchi Sea population is now available (University of Washington press release here), in an open-access paper: Regher et al. 2018. News reports (see one here) spin the positive outcome as something that researchers expected all along but that’s simply not true. They expected Chukchi Sea bears and Southern Beaufort Sea bears to respond similarly to reduced amounts of summer sea ice, as explained here and in Crockford 2017).
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Svalbard polar bear data 2016 through 2018 shows no impact of low ice years

Last week, the Norwegian Polar Institute updated their online data collected for the Svalbard area to include 2017 and 2018 — fall sea ice data and spring polar bear data. Older data for comparison go back to 1993 for polar bears and 1979 for sea ice, showing little to no impact of the reduced ice present since 2016 in late spring through fall.

Svalbard polar bear_NP015991-isbjorn-JA

Here’s what the introduction says, in part [my bold]:

“…The polar bear habitat is changing rapidly, and the Polar Basin could be ice-free in summer within a few years. Gaining access to preferred denning areas and their favourite prey, ringed seals, depends on good sea ice conditions at the right time and place. The population probably increased considerably during the years after hunting was banned in 1973, and new knowledge indicates that the population hasn’t been reduced the last 10-15 years, in spite of a large reduction in available sea ice in the same period.”

See Aars et al. 2017 for details on the 2015 Svalbard polar bear population count, keeping in mind that the subpopulation region is called “Barents Sea” for a reason: only a few hundred individuals currently stick close to Svalbard year round while most Barents Sea bears inhabit the pack ice around Franz Josef Land to the east (Aars et al. 2009; Crockford 2017, 2018).
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Status of Canadian polar bears updated map from Environment Canada

During a meeting of polar bear range states (Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway, and the USA) in late January 2018 to discuss conservation issues, Canada — home to ~2/3 of the world’s polar bears — included in its presentation an updated population status and trend map approved by the Polar Bear Technical Committee in its presentation. This 2017 map replaces one from 2014 but is not yet available on the Environment Canada website.

Lunn et al 2016 EA cover image WH bear

UPDATE 11 June 2018: More recent versions of population and status assessment maps, published by Environment Canada 6 June 2018, conclude Southern Hudson Bay and Western Hudson Bay subpopulations have “likely declined.” See 11 June post here for more details and copies of the maps.

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Polar bear numbers, margins of error, & consequences for conservation status

Large margins of error in polar bear population estimates means the conservation status threshold of a 30% decline (real or predicted) used by the US Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List is probably not valid for this species.

Polar_Bear_Biologist_USFWS_working_with_a_Bear_Oct 24 2001 Amstrup photo

Several recent subpopulation estimates have shown an increase between one estimate and another of greater than 30% yet deemed not to be statistically significant due to large margins of error. How can such estimates be used to assess whether population numbers have declined enough to warrant IUCN Red List or ESA protection?

What do polar bear population numbers mean for conservation status, if anything?

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