Tag Archives: threatened

Late winter surge in sea ice habitat and the resilience of Svalbard polar bears

The Barents Sea – and Svalbard in particular – has had very little sea ice this winter but recent evidence suggests pregnant females adapted by moving east to Franz Josef Land to have their cubs. The surge in ice that’s come over the last few weeks will, however, be welcome habitat for the critical hunt of fat newborn seals that takes place primarily in April and May.

Svalbard polar bear_NP015991-isbjorn-JA

It was only last fall that Norwegian biologist Jon Aars (photo above taken by him in August 2015) was touting the fat condition of Svalbard-area polar bears he and his team saw in August and admitted the population had increased by a whopping 42% since 2004 – despite dire predictions of a drastic decline. In fact, 2014/2015 was a great year for the area’s polar bears.

However, in the fall of 2015 sea ice was so late forming around Svalbard that it seemed impossible that any females would get to traditional denning grounds on the east coast in time to give birth. There was no sea ice to speak of until late December, so it seemed virtually certain that all females had gone to Franz Josef Land further east (in Russia) – as they are known to do – to utilized its alternative denning sites.

It’s called resilience – the ability to shift behaviour in response to changing conditions. In this case, all indications are that shifting den locations to Franz Josef Land is a long-standing response of Svalbard area polar bears to low ice conditions. This shift does not even require a movement outside their subpopulation boundaries, let alone a movement outside the ill-defined “sea ice ecoregions” originally defined by Steven Amstrup and colleagues (2008) to support their prediction that polar bears will likely be extinct by 2100, taken up later by others since.

Some polar bear specialists appear to believe that if Barents Sea conditions are not precisely what they were in the 1980s (examples here and here), polar bears cannot possibly survive. But the bears are showing them otherwise – and demonstrating how they likely survived previous warm periods like the Holocene Optimum ~9,000 years ago and the Eemian Interglacial ~115,000-130,000 years ago (CERQA 2014:66) without population numbers getting anywhere near extinction levels.
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Biggest threat to polar bears reconsidered

What presents a bigger risk to current polar bear populations: natural hazards that have already proven deadly or potential, yet-to-be-realized threats prophesied to occur due to human activities? That’s a perfect question for International Polar Bear Day.

Natural ice_snow variation and polar bears_model_PolarBearScienceFeb 20 2016

Dag Vongraven, chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, remarked last year that “until 2001, everything was fine.

Polar bear researchers thus assume that 2001 was the year climate change became the new over-hunting – but is it true? What are the relative harms presented by proven natural causes, potential human-caused threats, and predicted threats due to sea ice declines blamed on global warming? Considered objectively, is climate change really the single biggest threat to polar bear health and survival right now?
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Ten dire polar bear predictions that have failed as global population hits 20-31k

Grim predictions of the imminent demise of polar bears – their “harsh prophetic reality” as it’s been called – have been touted since at least 2001. But such depressing prophesies have so widely missed the mark they can now be said to have failed.

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_triplets redone PNG

 

While polar bears may be negatively affected by declines in sea ice sometime in the future, so far there is no convincing evidence that any unnatural harm has come to them. Indeed, global population size (described by officials as a “tentative guess“) appears to have grown slightly over this time, as the maximum estimated number was 28,370 in 1993 (Wiig and colleagues 1995; range 21,470-28,370) but rose to 31,000 in 2015 (Wiig and colleagues 2015, [pdf here] aka 2015 IUCN Red List assessment; range 20,000-31,000).

These ominous prophesies have been promoted primarily by Ian Stirling, Steven Amstrup, Andrew Derocher and a few other IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) members but ironically, it’s data collected by their colleagues that’s refuted their message of doom.

Here are the predictions (in no particular order, references at the end):
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Zoos use polar bears to spur action on climate change – not to save them

Media outlets have recently been having collective organisms over photos and videos of a three month old polar bear cub born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, which has again raised the issue of why it is now acceptable for polar bears to be held and bred in captivity.

Zoo bear at Columbus_after birth in November 2015

Newborn polar bear cub ‘Nora’ Columbus Zoo handout

The myth being propagated by zoos and their supporters is that it’s necessary to save polar bears from extinction.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth – this is all about pressuring people to care about climate change. Polar bears are merely  a marketing tool to spur action on climate change.  That’s not my opinion but the plan put in place in 2012 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Polar Bears International.

Oddly, few animal rights activists are objecting (or at least, not objecting very strenuously) to zoo displays of captive polar bear cubs – obvious money-making draws for zoos – which were so vehemently condemned in the 1970s that most zoos gave them up.

Now, the practice is defended and everyone seems to feel this is the greatest thing since the invention of the telephone. [Update 19 February 2016: courtesy the BBC, we can add Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland to the list of zoos using “we’re saving the polar bears” justification for breeding the bears in captivity]

The surprise is that disgraced climate scientist Michael Mann, promoter of the infamous hockey stick of global temperatures, is involved in all this.

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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

Many otherwise intelligent people believe only a few hundred polar bears remain

The other day, I got a call from an international journalist who admitted he’d done no research into the polar bear issue but believed, based on media reports he’d heard, that there must only be about 100-200 bears remaining in the Arctic. I know he’s not alone.

polar-bears-3-large_USGS

This journalist was utterly astonished to learn that the IUCN Red List assessment in 2015 put the polar bear population total at 20,000-31,000 bears and demanded proof that this was true.

Here is a summary of the Red List report, with references and links to the report:

The 2015 IUCN Red List assessment update for polar bears (published 18 November 2015) states that the global polar bear population is 20,000 – 31,000 (25,500), that the current trend is ‘unknown’ and that there is only a 70% chance that polar bear numbers will decline by 30% in 35 years (with virtually zero chance that the numbers will decline by 80% or more by 2050) – in other words, zero chance of extinction. [Detailed in a document called 22823 Ursus maritimus]. It classifies the polar bear as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction based on predictions of future sea ice decline due to global warming [similar to ‘threatened’ by other organizations] Pdf here.

Below is a list of what truly worrying species declines look like: that is, animals whose numbers have actually declined, no prophesies involved (Adler 2008).
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Polar bear habitat at 26 January 2016

There is still below average ice extent in the Barents Sea but there is no data whatsoever to indicate that this situation poses a problem for polar bears, given that as far as researchers know, polar bears eat little or nothing during the winter. That’s why the bears are at their leanest at the end of winter and why seal pups born in early spring are such a critical food source.

Note on map below (from WUWT Sea Ice Page, marked; original here) that polar bears are not found in three areas that are included in the total Arctic ice extent figures: below-average or above-average ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, Baltic Sea, and Gulf of St. Lawrence have no impact on polar bear health and survival.

 

Polar bear habitat at 26 Jan 2016_no bears marked_PolarBearScience_sm

Additional ice maps below. Continue reading