Tag Archives: population numbers

Polar bears do not outnumber people in Svalbard and the backlash against ecotourism over a justified defensive kill

It is often said that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, Norway (see BBC, “Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship guard29 July 2018). But that isn’t true now and probably hasn’t been for a very long time. This pseudo-fact (a misunderstanding made by tourism promoters) continues to be quoted as the story about the Svalbard polar bear shot by a cruise ship bear guard last week evolves in the online and print media. The media continue to focus on social media backlash against ecotourism, which is nothing like the pushback about the starving polar video from last year.

Svalbard dead bear_Gustav Busch Arntsen_Governor of Svalbard_NTB Scanpix via AP 28 July 2018

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Polar bear population numbers are for kids, says specialist Andrew Derocher

Polar bear specialists made global population numbers the focus of the world’s attention when they predicted a dramatic decline and possible extinction of the species. But now that the numbers have increased slightly rather than declined, the same scientists say global numbers are meaningless: the public should give those figures no credence and anyone who cites global population numbers should be mocked.

NBC 2015_3 there will soon be a big decline in polar bear numbers snap

See the screen shot from a 2015 NBC news video above and another from the science journal NATURE in 2008 below (Courtland 2008):

Courtland 2008 headline

Yet, below is a recent message from one of the world’s most vocal polar bear specialists, four years after a similar incident raised the public’s ire:

Derocher tweet 2018 Feb 28 quote

However, you can’t make a plausible prediction of future survival without an estimate of present population size: not even today’s worst journalists would buy it, nor should they.
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Polar bear counts for W Hudson Bay: ‘core’ area numbers are not comparable

Polar bear population estimates for Western Hudson Bay have recently become contentious because one specialist has been making statements that confuse the issue. As we all wait for the release of the report on the WHB aerial survey of 2016, it’s worth going over the recent history of these counts and what they have revealed.

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

The official count for bears in WHB (used by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, the IUCN Red List, and Environment Canada) is 1030, based on an aerial survey of the entire region conducted in 2011 (Stapleton et al. 2014).

Since last year, Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta) has been telling any media pundit who will listen that WHB polar bears have declined from about 1200 bears in the 1980s to only 800 or so bears today (one example here) — a statement that is clearly not true.  In recent months, however, whether due to complaints from the public or from his colleagues, he’s qualified that statement by saying it’s the number of bears in the “core” area of WHB that has declined.

But is Derocher’s revised statement a clear scientific interpretation of the facts? Have a look at the details below and see if you come to the same decision I have: that it’s not possible to compare WHB ‘core’ area polar bear population estimates over time.

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Did polar bear numbers in E. Beaufort fluctuate each decade due to thick ice years?

Now that we have a plausible explanation (previous post here) for why shorefast ice in the Eastern Beaufort got too thick for ringed seals every ten years or so, it’s time to talk about the effect that this recurring sea ice phenomenon might have had on polar bear population numbers.

We know from the reports of polar bear biologists that without fat young seals to eat in the spring, some bears in those thick-ice springs came close to starving and many mothers lost all or most of their cubs (Amstrup et al. 2006; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 2008). This presumably had some impact on population numbers – the question is: how bad was it?

None of the reports on the effects of the thick ice have given us any indication of how many polar bears might have died or lost their cubs. However, Ian Stirling and colleagues (Stirling et al. 2011) recently published a paper on the Northern Beaufort subpopulation that looked, at first glance, to have done just that.

You have to keep in mind that the geographic area in question – the Eastern Beaufort – is not an official polar bear subpopulation region – at least, not any more. As Fig. 1 below shows, the Eastern Beaufort was once its own, strictly Canadian region (or at least, a strictly Canadian research region) see previous post here), but management is now shared between two subpopulations and managed by two governments (Canada and the USA). About half of the bears of the “Eastern Beaufort” reside in the ‘Northern Beaufort’ subpopulation and the other half live in the ‘Southern Beaufort’ subpopulation.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely Canadian segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011). Labels added for clarity. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured north of Banks Island in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf to the southeast.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely a Canadian research segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into management regions called “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011, Fig. 1). Labels added. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf.

Despite the changing boundaries, ringed seals and polar bears in the Eastern Beaufort have been the focus of research since the early 1970s. In part, this is because the region has been targeted for oil exploration and studies on both species have been part of the associated ecological impact assessments (Stirling et al. 1993).

Getting back to the point, did Stirling et al. 2011 find fluctuations in polar bear numbers in the Northern Beaufort that might reflect the periodic bouts of thick spring ice in the Eastern Beaufort? Unfortunately, no — the data lack necessary precision. You’ll see why, I think, from the summary below.  Continue reading