Tag Archives: St. Lawrence Island

USGS report on history of walrus haulouts leaves out correlation with population size

Walrus researchers from the US Geological Survey have a new report on the history of walrus haulouts in the Chukchi and Bering Seas – yet their media efforts (via press release and interviews) fail to mention the relationship between fluctuating size of walrus haulouts and fluctuating walrus population size that is evident in that history. In fact, overall population size is not mentioned at all.

Walrus 2012 July USGS

Two articles came out over the weekend that announced the results of this new joint US-Russian initiative [PBS, Walrus beaching in Alaska might not be as harmful as it looks. Here’s why – 31 July 2016 and ADN, Alaska and Russia join forces to create 160-year database of walrus haulouts – 31 July 2016]

But neither articles nor the new USGS paper they are touting (Fischback et al. 2016) mention the huge summer/fall haulouts of females, calves, and juveniles that were documented in the 1970s that coincided with the huge population size at that time, which crashed in the 1980s.

Only now has the population grown (to at least 200,000) to the point that huge haulouts are again being reported – conservation has done it’s job. But when walrus numbers get too high the animals out-strip their food source and numbers plummet, as they did in the 1980s (Fay et al. 1989; Garlich-Miller et al. 2011). See my fully referenced summary paper, Crockford 2014 (On The Beach: Walrus Haulouts are Nothing New).

Here’s the concern: When (not if) a population crash happens again, will it be blamed on global warming rather than natural causes? According to the PBS article:

“The database is supposed to help federal officials with conservation, especially as more ships start sailing through the newly open waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining whether walrus should be listed as a threatened species.[my bold]

My GWPF video on the issue (The Walrus Fuss) below:

See excerpts from the USGS database below, with a map:

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Pacific walrus sob stories begin again

Now we have poor hunting conditions in the Bering Strait touted as evidence that “walrus migration patterns have changed” with the implication that this is because “…the past eight years have had the eight lowest amounts of summer sea ice on record” due to man-made global warming.

Walrus 2012 July USGS

A subsistence lifestyle is hard, particularly so if it depends on a highly mobile, migratory herd animal. Think Barren-ground Inuit caribou hunters, who often starved because herd sizes declined for a few years or moved unpredictably.

Many factors – seasonal weather, last year’s winter conditions, size of the herd, food supply – all affect where and when a migratory herd will move and the likelihood it will be positioned for optimal harvesting by hunters. Add another highly variable factor into that – Bering Sea ice – and you have a highly unpredictable food supply, especially if you sit in one spot (like on St. Lawrence Island) and expect that migratory herd animal to come within reach.

Hunting walrus from St. Lawrence Island depends on just the right combination of ice and winds. Too much ice is not good, too much open water is not good, and too much wind is not good.

Alaska Dispatch, courtesy the Associated Press, reports St. Lawrence natives are again short of walrus meat because of “warm temperatures”: “Warming temps push walrus north, leaving Alaska villages without traditional food source” (Rachel D’Oro, The Associated Press, August 6, 2015). And the caption of the above USGS (A. Sonsthagen) photo predictably implies all current hunting troubles can be blamed on climate channge:

“The walruses in this July 2012 file photo are hauled out in the Eastern Chukchi Sea. Walrus migration patterns have changed as sea ice and other environmental factors have shifted — and that’s spelled trouble for Alaska Native communities who hunt them for subsistence.”

The people of St. Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait that depend on walrus for subsistence have my sympathy, they indeed have a hard life – but this is not a tale of woe about the status of Pacific walrus and changing summer sea ice.

Bering Strait natives hunt walrus in spring, from mid-April to early June (Huntington et al. 2013). All indications are that walrus are moving differently than they used to in summer because the population is now very large.  As far as I know, there is no new population information on walrus that wasn’t available last year, when I covered this topic extensively (Crockford 2014; video below).

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Claim of range-contraction of polar bears due to declines in summer sea ice doesn’t hold up

Have polar bears suffered a contraction of their historical range due to recent declines in summer sea ice? Buried in a recent journal article lies such a claim, one I can’t recall having seen before. That makes it worth close examination.

Figure 2. A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

The assertion appears in the introduction of a recently published paper that got a lot of attention online (“Implications of the Circumpolar Genetic Structure of Polar Bears for Their Conservation in a Rapidly Warming Arctic” by Peacock and colleagues (2015), discussed previously here, news coverage here and here).

Here is how the authors put it:

There is already evidence of change in the contemporary distribution of polar bears. For example, polar bears, once common in Newfoundland [29], are now seen there only infrequently and in small numbers. Similarly, polar bears once regularly summered on St. Lawrence and St. Matthew islands in the Bering Sea [30–32]. Now they are irregularly observed in the Bering Sea and do not spend summers on St. Matthew Island. Although these changes in polar bear distribution may also have been related to overharvest, the recent reductions in the extent of sea-ice due would prevent current and regular use of these areas.[my emphasis]

There are three main reasons the claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny:
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Walrus and sea ice, a summary

I’ve written a briefing paper for the GWPF refuting claims that huge herds of Pacific walruses hauled out on land are a sign of global warming.

Here’s the GWPF press release:

London, 20 October: A briefing paper published today by the Global Warming Policy Foundation refutes claims that Arctic walruses are in distress and danger due to global warming.

The paper, written by Canadian zoologist Dr Susan Crockford, assesses the recent mass haulouts of walrus females and calves on the beaches of Alaska and Russia bordering the Chukchi Sea. The events have been blamed by US government biologists and WWF activists on lack of summer sea ice, amplified into alarming scare stories by news media around the world.

Such claims ignore previous haulouts that suggest a different cause. Scientific reports about large walrus haulouts that have occurred repeatedly over the last 45 years show that they are not new phenomena for this region.

At least two documented incidents of similar magnitude have occurred in the recent past: one in 1978, on eastern St. Lawrence Island and the other in 1972, on the western end of Wrangel Island. The 1978 event involved an estimated total of almost 150,000 walrus hauled out within in a small geographic area.

Moreover, sea ice maps for the months when known mass haulouts occurred, compared to years when they did not, suggest no strong correlation with low sea ice levels.

“The WWF and American walrus biologists have categorically linked the Point Lay mass haulout event to global warming, but available evidence suggests that’s alarmist nonsense,” Dr Crockford said.

“Blaming lack of sea ice for recent events ignores the documented factor – large population size – that drove walruses onto beaches en masse in the past, when plenty of ice was available. Conservation measures have almost certainly led to a spectacular recovery of walrus numbers over the last few years. This suggests that recent mass haulouts are more an indicator that Chukchi walrus are nearing maximum capacity than a sign of impending global warming catastrophe,” Dr Crockford added.

Here’s the paper. [Link fixed, h/t HO]


Mass gatherings of walrus follow-up – sea ice maps for 1978 and 1972

Walruses as polar bear prey and sea ice were on my mind last night and I remembered that we DO have detailed sea ice information for 1978 and 1972 – from the sea ice atlas put together by University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), which has ice concentration maps for Alaska going back to 1850 — and for every year up to 2013 (reported previously here).

Chukchi Sea walrus, June 2014. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Chukchi Sea walrus, June 2014. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

I’ve copied some of the ice maps below.

It is clear that ice was available close to Wrangel Island in 1972 when walruses chose to haul out on the island in huge numbers. And in 1978, there was ice present to the north of the walrus herd, but they had moved away from the ice to get to St. Lawrence Island, where they hauled out in large numbers.

This means it is more likely that food resources were the issue, not sea ice.

See another interesting follow-up elsewhere: Walrus inconsistencies
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Mass haulouts of Pacific walrus and stampede deaths are not new, not due to low ice cover

Large haulouts of walruses — such as the one making news at Point Lay, Alaska on the Chukchi Sea (and which happened before back in 2009) — are not a new phenomenon for this region over the last 45 years and thus cannot be due to low sea ice levels. Nor are deaths by stampede within these herds (composed primarily of females and their young) unusual, as a brief search of the literature reveals.

Pt Lay map Google marked

The attempts by WWF and others to link this event to global warming is self-serving nonsense that has nothing to do with science.

UPDATE October 3, 2014: See below. Also, do see follow-up posts here, here, and especially, here.

UPDATE October 23, 2014: A briefing paper summary is here and a video version of that paper (“The Walrus Fuss” — 3 1/2 minutes long) here.

There is also a follow-up post on the situation here.

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Polar bears in winter: starving bears and attacks on humans

Winter in the Arctic can be a tough time for polar bears. Between the cold, darkness and ever-thickening sea ice with fewer open leads, polar bears often find that seals are hard to come by.

So it should not be surprising to find out that polar bears are at their lowest body weight at the end of winter (Ramsay and Stirling 1988:613; Stirling 2002:68).

In other words, polar bears lose weight over the winter – not just during the ice-free summer period. That’s why the spring and early summer feeding period is so critical: gorging on young seals rebuilds the polar bears’ fat reserves lost over the winter and packs on even more fat to tide them over the late summer/early fall ice-free period.

Last fall, a potentially serious attack by a polar bear on a Churchill, Manitoba resident on Hallowe’en night (early hours of November 1) got a lot of attention worldwide. Some media outlets suggested that the bear involved in this attack was either starving or so hungry that he was driven to attack. However, this assertion was not supported by any evidence — we simply don’t know whether he was in poor condition or not. While the bear was undoubtedly leaner at the end of October than he was in July, that doesn’t mean he was actually ‘starving.’

So, here’s the question: given that polar bears have a tough time finding seals to eat during the dark and cold Arctic winter and are presumably at their hungriest then, do serious polar bear attacks on humans also happen in winter?
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