Tag Archives: starving

New Scientist prints a more reasoned polar bear article but myths persist

New Scientist has an article coming out next week takes a fairly reasoned approach to the polar bear conservation issue. It acknowledges that polar bear numbers have not declined in recent years even though summer sea ice dropped dramatically but goes on to perpetuate a number of myths that might not have happened if the author had done his homework or quizzed his other experts as thoroughly as he did me.

New Scientist headline_10 Feb 2018 issue 3164 photo

The survivors: is climate change really killing polar bears? Rapid global warming is said to be ringing the death knell for polar bears, by melthing their icy hunting grounds. But the reality is more complex. Fred Pearce, New Scientist 10 February 2018. Online now.

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Polar bear specialists double-down on message of future starving bears

The really significant content of a new paper being heavily-hyped by the media1 is what wasn’t said rather than what the authors discovered about metabolic rates and weight maintenance of a small sample of nine Southern Beaufort Sea bears in 2014 to 2016 (Pagano et al. 2018; Whiteman 2018).

Pagano et al. 2018 photo released to press 2

This paper does not document starving or dying bears but merely found some (5/9) that lost weight when they should have been gaining, given that early April is the start of the ringed seal pupping season (Smith 1987) and the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears (Stirling et al. 1981).

The question is, why were Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears off Prudhoe Bay (see map of the study area below), still hunting and capturing only adult and subadult ringed seals from sea ice leads when newborn ringed seal pups and their mothers should have been plentiful and relatively easily available in their birth lairs on the sea ice (see below)?

Ringed seal lair_snow and ice thickness_PolarBearScience_sm

“Using video collar data, we documented bears’ hunting behavior and foraging success. Bears used sit-and-wait tactics to hunt seals 90% of the time, and stalking comprised the remaining 10% of hunts (movies S1 to S4) (19). Bears that successfully killed and ate adult or subadult ringed seals either gained or maintained body mass, whereas bears that only scavenged or showed no evidence of eating lost mass.”

There was no discussion in the paper of ringed seal birth lairs, or sea ice conditions at the time of the study, but several mentions about what might happen in the future to sea ice and potential consequences for polar bears. The press release did the same.

However, as you’ll see by the sea ice thickness maps below, there may be good reason for the lack of ringed seal lairs, and a general lack of seals except at the nearshore lead that forms because of tidal action: the ice just a bit further offshore ice looks too thick for a good crop of ringed seals in all three years of the study. This is reminiscent of conditions that occurred with devastating results in the mid-1970s and mid-2000s (Burns et al. 1975; Cherry et al. 2009; Harwood et al. 2012, 2015; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002, Stirling et al. 1987). Those events affected primarily bears in the eastern half of the Southern Beaufort and were almost certainly responsible for the recorded decline in SB bear numbers in the 2001-2010 survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015; Crockford 2017; Crockford and Geist 2018).

It seems very odd to me that Pagano and colleagues suggested no reasons for the unexpectedly poor showing of polar bear hunting success during their study except a bit of hand-waving about higher-than-we-thought metabolic rates in the bears. For years, I’ve worried that the inevitable next episodes of thick Southern Beaufort spring ice would cause problems for polar bears and seals but we wouldn’t know it because whatever effects were documented would be blamed on reduced summer ice: I suspect that time may have come.

Pagano et al. 2018 polar bear fat and energy fig 1

Figure 1 from Pagano et al. 2018 cropped to show only the study area off Alaska.

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Polar bear attacks are extremely rare says new study — but the data are incomplete

I did considerable research on polar bear attacks for my thriller of a novel EATEN — which many readers are finding a welcome change from the numbers-and-statistics approach of science — and I have to say that a recently published scientific summary of this phenomenon (1880-2014) authored by biologist James Wilder and colleagues left me speechless (Wilder et al. 2017).

Isbjørn

with permission, see EATEN cover.

By attempting to generate information that could be assessed with statistical methods, the authors ended up with data that is so skewed and incomplete that it fails to provide a plausible assessment of the risk to humans of attacks by polar bears. In my opinion, acknowledging that well-reported attacks on Europeans (or recorded by them) make up the bulk of the data used in the paper does not adequately address the weakness of the authors’ conclusions that attacks by polar bears are “extremely rare.”

The paper also focuses much attention on the potential for increases in polar bear attacks on humans due to sea ice loss (blamed on global warming) but ignores totally the increased risk stemming from the larger proportion of adult males that now exist in protected populations. Adult males frequently steal the kills of younger bears and in recovering (i.e. growing) populations, relatively more adult males potentially generate more young males that are nutritionally stressed and at risk of attacking humans (see discussion below).

Finally, no supplementary data is provided to show which records of attacks were included in the study, and no information is provided about how to access the database. How is that possible in this day and age?

Much is made in the paper of the negative effect of polar bear attacks on conservation objectives and the perceived increase in attacks associated with recent sea ice loss. These points were picked up by activist organization Polar Bears International (“Save Our Sea Ice!“) in a press release issued yesterday (11 July, pdf here). This has already generated the desired media attention (here and here, likely more to follow, like this) which is predictably focused on predictions of more polar bear attacks on humans due to global warming.

I have a feeling Inuit and other native inhabitants of the Arctic will not be impressed.

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As polar bear populations fail to decline with sea ice, message of doom intensifies

If 10 years of summer sea ice levels expected to kill 2/3 of the world’s polar bears by 2050 hasn’t had an impact, why would anyone expect a bit less summer ice will do the job?

sea-ice-prediction-vs-reality-2012_polarbearscience

The more the polar bears fail to die in droves, the shriller the message from activist polar bear researchers – via willing media megaphones – that the great death of the bears will soon be upon us, just you wait and see!

Some big media guns were out this past week spreading the prophesy of doom fed to them by the polar bear researchers most committed to the “threatened with extinction” narrative: The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. The desperation is becoming palpable as the public catches on to their epic failure.

In 2007, the sea ice dropped to a level the experts said wouldn’t be reached until mid-century, and since then, it has remained at that low level (about 3-5mkm2, give or take some measuring error). And in 2007, US Geological Survey (USGS) biologists said with absolute confidence that when sea ice levels reached that point, 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would be gone.

No bears at all would remain, they said, in Western Hudson Bay (the Churchill bears), Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, Southern Beaufort, Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the Laptev Sea:  ten out of 19 subpopulations would be extirpated if sea ice levels in most years dropped to the summer lows in the 3-5 mkm2 range.

On the basis of that prediction, polar bears were declared ‘threatened’ with extinction by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But nothing of the kind happened. There are still lots of polar bears – and not even struggling-to-survive bears but lots of fat healthy bears everywhere across the Arctic, in what were considered by USGS biologists to be the most vulnerable regions of all: Western Hudson Bay (i.e., Churchill), Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort (Alaska) and the Barents Sea (Norway).

This is the truth the world needs to hear: the experts were wrong. Polar bears have not been driven to the brink of extinction by climate change, they are thriving. This is the message of each of my two new books (one of which is appropriate for kids of all ages, see the sidebar).

In turns out that polar bears are much more resilient to changing levels of sea ice than data collectors assume and the proof is in the current healthy populations everywhere. Continue reading

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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Add human graves to the list of things that attract polar bears to communities

A report last week that a polar bear dug a human cadaver out of a coffin buried in the cemetery on the west coast of Hudson Bay did not get the media attention it perhaps deserved: it takes the term ‘grisly’ to a new level.

Early arrival of polar bears at Nunavut hamlet prompts early monitoring: One bear digs into burial plot at Arviat cemetery (NunatsiaqOnline, 29 August 2016).

mother-and-cub-on-beach_Stirling

Quotes from the story, a map, and comments on problem bears below.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea and the issue of open water in May

A map posted by USGS shows that the 13 polar bears with tags or collars tracked during April 2016 in the Beaufort Sea were down to 9 in May (7 females with collars, 2 subadult or adult males with tags). As two rather large patches of open water formed last month in the Beaufort – mostly due to winds and currents, rather than melt (see animation below, original post here) – a reasonable question is this: how have polar bears dealt with this somewhat unusual condition?

Polar_Bear_Biologist_USFWS_working_with_a_Bear_Oct 24 2001 Amstrup photo

Beaufort Sea breakup in April due to the effects of the Beaufort Gyre (NASA video):

There is also fairly extensive open water in Hudson Bay, so the same question can be asked for that region as well – but fortunately, we have data on tagged bears from both regions to give us a clue as to how the bears are faring.
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