Tag Archives: starving

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).


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?


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.


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.


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).


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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Cannibalism video shot in 2015 did not involve a starving polar bear

National Geographic has just posted an exclusive video shot mid-summer of 2015 of a male polar bear killing and eating a young cub.

National Geographic 2015 cruise Cannibalism video screencap_Feb 23 2016

It’s worth watching (23 February 2016; Polar bear cannialzies cub) [update: Youtube version posted below]. It was filmed in 2015 in Baffin Bay at mid-summer (during either their July 28-Aug 9 or Aug 7- 19 cruise; pdf of itinerary, dates and prices – oh my god, the prices! here). [Summer is 1 July-30 September]

You’ll soon realize the male bear was not thin or starving (as was true of a much-publicized 2011 event captured on film off Svalbard).

It is also obvious based on the dates listed above that this incident debunks the explanation that cannibalism by adult males is driven primarily by their desire to mate with the mother of the consumed cub: this incident occurred sometime between August 7 and August 19 (as I was informed via email, by a reader on one of those two cruises), which is well past the breeding season for polar bears. A male bear would not still have viable sperm by August and a female could not be forced into estrus. [added 26 February 2016]

National Geographic is already hyping this incident as more evidence of climate change harming polar bears, as the article accompanying the video suggests. However, this is just the typical oversell that accompanies much to do with polar bear these days.

The bear was not “driven to desperation” : he simply took advantage of a rare chance to eat during the summer:

“Without the ability to hunt seals, polar bears may be driven to ever more extreme cannibalism, if they’re not already.”

It’s clear to me that this was an opportunistic kill made at a time of year when few seals are available, as even Stirling admits. It reiterates the point I’ve made many times before, that polar bears on the sea ice in summer have few feeding opportunities.

Incidents of cannibalism cannot be said to be increasing because there is no scientific baseline for which recent occurrences can be compared. Scattered anecdotal reports of any behaviour cannot be touted as evidence for a trend even though they may be of interest and worth recording.

UPDATE 23 February 2016: Video now posted on Youtube, see it copied below:

Polar bear myths perpetuate from the mouth of stuck-in-the-past Ian Stirling

In my last post, I complained about “vague and misleading statements” made by polar bear specialists and conservation advocates. Here’s a recent example of that phenomena, from veteran polar bear biologist Ian Stirling.


stirling_UA faculty page photo accessed July 22 2012

The magazine of Canada’s North, UpHere, published an interview with Ian Stirling this month. The piece begins:

“No fear-mongering. No exaggeration. For Ian Stirling, it’s purely about the science.”

Yeah, well – judge for yourself. Here’s a sample:

“We have lost on average about half the sea ice that we had in 1979, which is the first year that satellite coverage of the Arctic was taken [he’s talking about September ice here]. Places like Hudson Bay are breaking up three weeks earlier than they used to and freezing up a couple weeks later. We’re going to have even more significant effects over a much wider area in the Arctic. We’re likely to lose another 30 or 40 percent, or even half of the bears that we have today in the middle of the century, and unchecked, we will likely have very few bears left at the turn of the next century. In 2100, we’ll probably just have a few small remaining pockets in the northern Canadian Arctic islands and northern Greenland.”

Read the rest here.

Stirling’s opinion about polar bears and climate change hasn’t changed since at least 2004 despite the following scientific developments: Continue reading