Tag Archives: Southern Beaufort

Kaktovik, AK has a polar bear problem but not because bears are desperate for food

PBS has published a bizarre poor-starving-polar-bears story that uses pictures of fat, healthy bears to illustrate the supposed desperation of malnourished bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea that is blamed on declining sea ice.

pbs-newshour-headline_15-october-2016

The photo of the fat bear above, taken by the Kaktovik resident quoted in the 15 October 2016 PBS story, Polar bears, growing desperate for food, threaten native Alaskans, accompanies this statement:

“While images of malnourished polar bears have become a national symbol of the effects of climate change, they are a front line reality for Native Alaskans, who face them on their own property and do not want them to get hurt.”

Except this is not a story about starving bears but too many fat bears hanging around one particular community looking for other kinds of food – after being lured in by the enticing smell of rotting whale meat left onshore by the residents.

If photos of starving Beaufort bears existed that PBS could have used to illustrate this story, I’m certain those photos would have been used. But virtually all of the pictures I’ve seen of Kaktovik bears are the epitome of health – fat and sassy – but none that could be described as starving.

polar_bear-US FWS_young bear Alaska maybe Kaktovik no date.jpg

It turns out that while native Kaktovik residents have profited from tourists and journalist who have shown up in droves to view the large numbers of bears attracted to the bone piles left after butchering summer-caught bowhead whales, the bears have also put the community at risk of personal attack and loss of stored food. Who would have thought?

Residents of Kaktovik (see map below) have unwittingly enticed these polar bears ashore and now must deal with the consequences. As the residents of Churchill discovered decades ago, having polar bears close to your community comes with benefits, problems – and danger.

kaktovik-composite

There is no doubt that Kaktovik has a polar bear problem but it cannot plausibly be blamed on anthropogenic global warming, retreating sea ice, or starving bears – an irresistible attractant close to the community is the cause and solutions must be found to keep residents safe and their food secure. The PBS article discusses a few of those solutions. Some quotes and background below.

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New paper: U of A put collars on subadult SB polar bear males since 2007

Even though it is well known that subadult male polar bears (≤ 4 years old) continue to grow in mass and bulk as they mature – so that their thick necks get even larger – in recent years Andrew Derocher and his students at the University of Alberta potentially endangered the lives of many subadult males in the Southern Beaufort in the process of learning relatively little they didn’t already know.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Money quote from a just-accepted paper by Master’s student Jody Pongracz and supervisor Derocher (“Summer refugia of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the southern Beaufort Sea” Polar Biology, in press 2016):

“The number of bears tracked varied over time due to collar design, deployment, and both planned and unplanned collar retention.”

So, how much “unplanned collar retention” issues [collars that did not fall off as expected] went on during this 2007-2010 study? They don’t say.

Is this paper saying U of A researchers knew they had ‘collar retention’ issues as far back as 2010 but continued to deploy them on subadult males after that study was over? It seems so, because they had an issue with just such a bear last year.

The bear with an apparently tight collar that was photographed last fall (see photo above) went out onto the ice and no one knows what happened – there has been no more information on him since, although researchers have apparently been watching for him, updated just yesterday). The University of Alberta statement says (under the June 2 update):

“Ongoing research at the University of Alberta is shifting to ear tag radios as required”

So now they realize that putting collars on subadult males is not such a good idea. Brilliant!

CBC News (28 October 2015): “Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar“. See previous posts here and here. In a Global News interview (23 November 2015), Derocher admitted his team had “likely” put the collar on that bear, prompting the University of Alberta to issue a “Q & A” statement on the incident – which continues to insist that failure of collars to release is “rarely seen.”

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New paper shows no harm from more time on land for S. Beaufort polar bears

polarbears-arcticnatlwildliferefuge-suzannemiller-usfws_labeled_smTake-home quote from a new polar bear paper by Todd Atwood and colleagues (2016):

“…there is no causal link between the patterns in polar bear vital rates and increased use of terrestrial habitat…”

In other words, there was no information to link the increased time polar bears spent onshore with either an increase or a decrease in body condition, survival or cub production. The authors did find that polar bears were strongly attracted to the bone piles that accumulated in the fall from 2010-2013 after Inuit bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) hunting at Barrow, Cross Island, and Kaktovik. Isn’t that a surprise?

The results also appear to confirm previous work that showed terrestrial (land-based) foods are not important to polar bears – a conclusion I totally agree with and which I discussed last year here. No wonder there was no press release issued by USGS about this study. It’s only “news” because someone the Anchorage Daily News interviewed lead-author Atwood yesterday as a way of promoting the International Bear Conference (see previous post here, now updated with a link to the Talk of Alaska radio podcast). Atwood implied there could be advantages to bears from feeding on the bone piles but admitted he had no data to support that assumption.
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Some inconvenient polar bear facts supported by scientific literature

The evidence that polar bears have not been harmed by recent declines in sea ice is contained in the scientific literature, no matter what some researchers say when they talk to the media.

USGS w_polarbearscience_caption 2016

Here’s a few of those facts (not all, by any means), with the references to back them up:
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Polar bear habitat update end of April 2016: Plenty of sea ice for feeding

So, here we are near the end of the first month of the Arctic spring and there is still more ice than usual off Labrador and conditions in the Barents Sea are improving daily. The fear-mongers can blather all they like about the potential risks of bears swimming in summer – but spring is the critical season as far as sea ice is concerned for polar bears and all polar bear biologists know it. Polar bears consume 2/3 of all the food they need for the year during April-June and so far, ice conditions are looking just fine.

Cambridge Bay_we re OK_from Joe Prins

There is enough ice where there needs to be ice for polar bears to gorge themselves on new-born ringed and bearded seals – and that’s really all that matters. More ice off Labrador means more hunting ground for the Davis Strait polar bears that depend on the tens of thousands of young harp seals born this year off the Front.

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland
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Ian Stirling uses lifetime award to repeat flawed predictions for polar bears

It has been less than a month since the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears was announced, which emphasized that the population trend for polar bears is unknown and that there is only a 70% chance that polar bear numbers could decline by 30% over the next 35 years.

ian-stirling_full

Yet, in a press release announcing the Weston Family Prize for lifetime achievement in northern research (along with $50,000) to Ian Stirling for his work on polar bears (Newswire, December 9, 2015), Stirling is quoted repeating an out-of-date prediction:

“Dr. Stirling estimates that about half of the polar bear population around the circumpolar Arctic could disappear by 2050 to 2060, if climate warming continues as is currently projected…”

I’d have thought that if Stirling did not agree with the IUCN assessment prepared by his colleagues, he would have said so last month when the report was released to international fanfare. Instead, he seems to be deliberately ignoring the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment and pretending that the flawed predictions he had a hand in making are still plausible.  Continue reading

Paris climate change deal will not stop polar bears dying due to thick ice in spring

Thick spring ice due to natural causes is currently the single biggest threat to polar bears. Not declining summer sea ice – thick spring ice. That could change in the future but right now, the evidence supports that statement.

polar_bear with collar_USGS

Polar bear deaths due to cyclical changes in Arctic sea ice thickness in the spring have continued despite rising CO2 emissions and declining summer sea ice extent (last major incident, 2004-2006): there is no reason to expect this will not continue. Unwarranted attention on summer ice extent has deflected attention from this major cause of local polar bear population decline.

Sea ice models do not address past or future changes in spring ice thickness and predictive models of polar bear survival blame all population declines on summer sea ice declines despite strong evidence to the contrary (Crockford 2015: The Arctic Fallacy). Continue reading