Tag Archives: scientists

Even with Inuit lives at stake, polar bear specialists make unsupported claims

The standoff between Inuit and polar bear specialists regarding the status of polar bears in Canada is not going to end until someone in authority demands to see the data scientists insist contradict Inuit knowledge.

Macleans to kill a polar bear headline 21 April 2019

An article in Maclean’s Magazine (15 April 2019), entitled “To Kill a Polar Bear”, explores some of the feelings and opinions of folks involved but fails to ask whether the data support the rhetoric advanced by scientists. Author Aaron Hutchins takes the scientists at their word, that seeing more bears than 20 years ago is all because of lack of sea ice. However, from what I’ve seen, he might as well trust a fox in a hen house.

Ian Stirling is quoted by Hutchins insisting that polar bears in Western Hudson Bay continue to suffer from the effects of declining sea ice, without mentioning that ice cover has been essentially static on Hudson Bay since at least 2001 (Castro de al Guardia et al. 2017; Lunn et al. 2016) and fall freeze up dates for the last two years were earlier than most years in the 1980s:

“This year saw the seventh-lowest Arctic sea ice levels since the National Snow and Ice Data Center first started gathering satellite data 40 years ago, with the long-term trend clearly downwards. And the negative effects on polar bears can be clearly seen in the science, says Stirling, pointing to the closely studied subpopulation along western Hudson Bay: “They’re losing body condition. Reproductive rates have dropped. Survival rates of young have plummeted. Every indication you would expect from a declining population is there.”

However, as I’ve pointed out previously (last year and in 2012), there are no recent data published that support these claims: the only information that exists is at least 25 years old. And the fact that no such data have been published suggests strongly that it either does not exist or does not show what Stirling claims it shows.

Yet, the government of Canada is willing to bet the lives of Inuit on their belief that polar bear specialists would never stretch the truth to qualify for government grants.

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Polar bear voted newsmaker of the year in Nunavut: A climate change emblem becomes a symbol of bitter conflict

This Nunatsiaq News editorial is worth a read (2 January 2019): Meet our newsmaker of the year: the polar bear.

Polar bear newsmake of the year_2 Jan 2019 Nunatsiaq News

“But for this year, we’re not choosing a person. For 2018, our newsmaker of the year designation goes to an entire species: the polar bear.

To earn that, the humble polar bear didn’t have to do much of anything. All they had to do was what polar bears have always done: hunt, eat, mate and protect their young.

In doing so, they caused two heart-rending Nunavut tragedies: the death of an Arviat man in July, followed by the death of a Naujaat man in August. These events have aggravated a bitter regional controversy that’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, especially in the Kivalliq region.”

It continues (my bold):

“But in Nunavut, the damage that environmentalists have inflicted on their cause will likely last for generations. Growing numbers of people in Nunavut not only believe polar bears are a threat to public safety. Growing numbers also believe that scientists and government wildlife managers are their enemy.

On that last point, the condescending attitudes of some researchers and government officials has been rather less than helpful.

For example, the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change said last fall, in a submission to the wildlife management board, that the Inuit position is “inconsistent with the federal listing of the polar bear as a species of special concern in Canada.”

That tone-deaf response simply reinforces the Inuit belief that governments value the lives of polar bears more than they value the lives of human beings.”

Read the whole thing here.

Climate change not forcing polar bears to hunt humans but lack of baby seals might

At least a dozen polar bears that besieged a remote Russian weather station on an island in the Kara Sea during the first two weeks of September prompted a few media pundits to suggest that loss of summer sea ice due to global warming may be forcing polar bears to hunt humans for food. Headlines like the one below, from the IB Times, fueled such notions:

russian-scientists-trapped-by-polar-bears-14-sept-2016_ib-times

Eye-catching though such headlines might be, this is more sensationalism than reality.  These particular bears have been onshore since early July this year (about the time some Western Hudson Bay bears come ashore) and sea ice conditions have been similar this time of year since 2007. In other words, despite what some writers are claiming, sea ice conditions this year are nothing new.

A few bears usually visit this station each summer when the sea ice leaves – but this year there were more than a dozen bears rather than a few. My opinion as a scientist is that more bearsmore bears that are increasingly unafraid of people – are likely the cause of the sudden increase in numbers of bears being a problem at this location. Note that of the 14 bears, four were cubs, which is a good crop of youngsters.

In addition, hunting polar bears is banned in Russia and this incident shows to what lengths people must go to avoid killing them – the population must be booming and may be higher yet than the last population count (in 2013) of about 3,200 bears. More bears means more competition for food, which means more assertive bears get the goods. None of these bears were described as thin or starving – see more photos, like the one below, from the Russian weather station (Daily Mail, 18 September 2016).

russian-weather-station-troynoy-island_mailonline-18-sept-2016

While polar bears are always on the look-out for food (and thus always a potential threat to humans), they are most apt to be truly dangerous in winter (when they are at their lowest body weight)  and in spring if seals are in short supply.

That’s why my new polar bear attack thriller EATEN is set in early spring, in a year when seals happen to be scarce. Imagine the damage those Russian polar bears could have done if they’d been truly desperate for food – a mere door or window would not have stopped them.

Imagine if dozens of truly ravenous polar bears stalk and ambush people across a great frozen landscape, taking them by complete surprise because no one considers a bear attack in spring to be a real possibility. What if dozens of people have been killed and eaten by hungry polar bears and there is no end in sight? That is the premise of EATEN – a science-based novel set in Newfoundland that will scare your pants off.

This is a great read for fall, when polar bear encounter stories abound. Hopefully the reports this year won’t include the kind of serious mauling that happened in 2003.

sept-reading-promo_eaten
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Polar bears are not hungriest in summer when scientists are busy in the Arctic

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, hungriest – at the end of March, not in the summer, as chemist Crispin Halsall stated in a recent article about working in the Arctic.

Polar bear feeding budget_PolarBearScience_6Sept2015

Recent September 1st stories by CNN and the BBC, based on a press release by WWF Russia on 27 August 2015, that five bears in the southern Kara Sea were hanging around a weather station and frightening workers there, apparently prompted chemist Crispen Halsall to make a nonsensical statement about polar bears being at their “hungriest” in summer (first here, reproduced here and picked up yesterday (September 5) by The Guardian here).

“In the path of the polar bears: what it’s like to be an Arctic scientist” (4 September 2015; Crispin Halsall, Reader in Environmental Chemistry at Lancaster University) had this to say:

“The case of Russian scientists trapped in their remote Arctic base by a group of inquisitive yet hungry polar bears does not come as a surprise. By late summer, Arctic sea ice is at a minimum and polar bears are effectively landlocked in coastal areas eagerly awaiting the return of ice during the autumn freeze and the chance to hunt seals again.

The Arctic summer is also the time of year when scientific activities are at their maximum, with bases operating at capacity and fieldwork operations at full flow, particularly in tundra and coastal regions. Polar bears are hungriest when scientists are busiest – “encounters” are inevitable. [my bold]

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, the hungriest – at the end of winter (when it is more likely to kill with the intent to consume human prey) as stated clearly by Stirling and Øritsland (1995:2603):

Polar bears reach their lightest weights for the year in late March, just prior to the birth of the next cohort of ringed seal pups, which also suggests that it is the success of their hunting in spring and early summer that gives them the body reserves they need to survive through the rest of the year.” [my bold]

A polar bear that has not fed properly in spring – because it was young and inexperienced, too old or too young to defend its kills from bigger, stronger bears, or simply sick or injured – it might be unusually hungry in summer but it’s not the norm.  Polar bears eat nothing or very little over the summer (whether on land or on the ice) because they live off their stored fat – the physiological condition known as ‘fasting.’

The photos and video in the September 1, 2015 BBC story of the Russian bears shows this: the bears are fat, not skinny (“Video caption: Five bears settled near the weather station on the north Russian island of Vaygach, as Frankie McCamley reports”):

Beseiged by bears Russia BBC video Sept 1 2015

Polar bears might approach humans working in the Arctic during the summer because they are curious and/or bored, and they might attack and even eat humans because they have a drive to eat whenever the opportunity arises. But it’s not because they are “hungriest” in the summer.

References
Stirling, I. and Øritsland, N. A. 1995. Relationships between estimates of ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations in the Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52: 2594 – 2612. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/f95-849#.VNep0y5v_gU