Tag Archives: Rode

Graphing polar bear population estimates over time

I’ve already commented on the 2013 update of polar bear population status released by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

However, I thought it might be interesting to graph the changes in global population estimates over time (from 1981-2013) — not just the actual estimates from PBSG status tables (with their min/max error ranges) but those totals plus the so-called “inaccurate” estimates that the PBSG have dropped from their accounts in recent (2005-2013) assessments: Chukchi Sea, East Greenland, Queen Elizabeth Islands (now known as the “Arctic Basin”), and Laptev Sea.

In 2001, those “inaccurate” estimates contributed 5,000-5,400 bears to the global total, but now they’re gone — no bears from those regions contribute to the official totals listed on recent PBSG status tables.

Adding those dropped estimates back into the global totals makes it possible to generate a graph in which the global estimates are truly comparable over time.

To see how the dropped estimates influenced the perception of population change over time, I’ve also graphed the estimates given by the PBSG in their status tables. I’ve combined the two into one image (Fig. 1, click to enlarge) to make comparison easy.

UPDATE 5 December 2014: Links to more recent posts relevant to this issue added below. The most recent numbers, added 31 May 2015, are here.

UPDATE 26 March 2019: See “Latest global polar bear abundance ‘best guess’ estimate is 39,000 (26,000-58,000)
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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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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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Record sea ice loss in 2007 had no effect on polar bears, Chukchi study confirms

One aspect of the recently published study on Chukchi Sea polar bears (Rode et al.2014 [now in print] 2013; see here and here) has not been stressed enough: their finding that the differences in overall condition between bears in the Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Seas came down to disparities in spring feeding opportunities and therefore, the condition of spring sea ice.

The fact that spring — not summer — is the most critical period for polar bears is something I’ve pointed out before (see here and here, for example) but it’s worth repeating at this time of year, when all eyes are on the annual ice minimum. It is often treated as a given that the decline in extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic since 1979 has been detrimental to polar bears. However, this is an assumption that we can now say is not supported by scientific evidence (see summary of that evidence here).

The results published by Rode et al. (2014 2013) not only add further support to the conclusion that declines in summer sea ice have not harmed polar bears, but should put the matter to rest – unless new evidence to the contrary is produced.

Chukchi bears, the report tells us, had more food available in the spring than Southern Beaufort bears (see map below) and this was the primary reason that bears were doing very well in the Chukchi and not quite as well in the Southern Beaufort. And because the polar bears for this study were captured and measured in mid-March to early May, from 2008 to 2011, they reflect spring-time conditions for 2008-2011 as well as year-round conditions from 2007 through 2010.

This means that the annual low ice extent for 2007 (record-breaking at the time), in the fall before this study began, had no discernible negative effect on either Chukchi or Southern Beaufort polar bears – and neither did similarly low annual minimums in two of the three remaining years of the study (Fig 1).

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in September 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: August map

Here is the follow-up I promised to my post on the July track map for polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice. See that post for methods and other background on this topic, and some track maps from 2012.

The track map for August was posted on the USGS website on September 4th and is copied here below (Figure 1). The ice moved a bit further offshore during August but not nearly as far as it did in 2012. The ten bears from July were down to eight – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died (the researchers don’t say which).

 Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.”[Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked - their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]


Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.” [Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]

So, of the eight polar bears still being followed by USGS researchers in August, three were on shore and five were on the ice. Only time will tell if the three females on shore are pregnant and preparing maternity dens for the winter, but this seems the likely reason they are not on the ice with the others.

I’ll post the track map for September when it is available in early October at the USGS website.

The map for July 2013 is below, for comparison: Continue reading

Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice

PB_male on ice_Regehr USFWS_March 2010_labeledTracking Beaufort Sea polar bears over the summer — what can it tell us about how important the position of summer sea ice relative to the shoreline in this region is to these bears? Do Beaufort Sea bears get stranded on shore like the polar bears in Davis Strait and Hudson Bay?

Polar bear biologist Eric Regehr (with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, or FWS) has a team working with US Geological Survey researchers (USGS) in the southern Beaufort tracking where adult female polar bears go throughout the year. This is part of on-going research in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea (see previous post here; see also Fish & Wildlife 2009; Polar Bear News 2010 and 2013; Rode and Regehr 2010, pdfs below; and just out, the “accepted” version of the Rode et al. paper discussed here, and announced in my last post here).

The researchers have been posting a summary map at the end of each month on the USGS website showing the tracks of the females they fitted with radio collars the previous spring — for 2013, and back to 2010. They can’t put collars on male bears because their necks are larger around than their heads, so a collar would just slip off.

I’ve posted the July 2013 track map below, which shows all ten bears out on the ice, and the previous month (June 2013) to compare it to (the August map should be out shortly). I’ve included a few maps from 2012 to allow you to compare this year’s results to the situation last summer.

The August tracks should be available after the Labour Day weekend – check back next week to see where the bears have been this month. I’ll post the map here or you can go to the USGS website directly. [UPDATE Sept 4, 2013: The August map is up, posted here.]

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Good news about Chukchi Sea polar bears whispered by US Fish & Wildlife Service

Just out: the “accepted” version of the Rode et al. paper discussed here last month — detailing just how well polar bears in the Chukchi Sea subpopulation are doing, despite recent declines in sea ice.

However, what was decidedly odd was how I found out about it.

Yesterday (Aug 28), while looking for something else, I found a “press release” tweeted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) employee Geoff York, who is now also a full voting member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

Chukchi bears press release tweet_Geoff York Aug 28 2013

The announcement that York tweeted is listed as “alaska.fws.gov/external/newsroom/pdf/cs_polar_bear_article.pdf” and I found a stand-alone copy of the pdf with that title on Google.

However, FWS has so far (Aug. 29, 7:00 am PT) not mentioned this item on their [central] website, their twitter account, or their Facebook page (pdf here, with its original title). The “press release” has no date and is not on FWS letterhead but is authored by “Eric V. Regehr, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.” [I guess FWS employees can issue their own press releases?] UPDATE: Found it finally in the “FWS Alaska region” (Alaska FWS, posted Aug. 22, 2013, which included the Eric Regehr summary tweeted by York), via a news report at SitNews dated Aug. 27. Mystery solved]

Also odd that so far, no one except Geoff York himself seems to have picked it up (nothing so far on WWF website or Facebook page, Polar Bears International pages, or at ScienceDaily. [Update: see news report at SitNews dated Aug. 27. Still odd that the FWS report has been sitting there quietly since the 22nd (Thursday of last week)]

Not exactly how I’d choose to spread good news, but perhaps that’s the point.

Nevertheless, not too much new in the paper itself [contact me if you’d like a copy] – no population size estimate, for example – other than what I included in the summary provided last month (based on a March presentation by lead author Karyn Rode), except this: spring litter sizes [1.90 in 2007 and 2.17 in 2009 on Wrangel Island] were “are among the highest reported for 18 of 19 polar bear populations” and were similar to litter sizes 20 years earlier.

I guess the picture of the Chukchi female with a litter of triplet yearling cubs included without mention in the 2010 Rode and Regehr report (pdf here, copied below, discussed previously here) was significant after all.

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

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