Tag Archives: threatened

Why is polar bear conservation such a contentious issue?

Are polar bears in decline or not? Who is to blame for the fact that there is no clear answer about how polar bears are doing? Apparently, everyone except polar bear specialists are at fault for the way polar bear issues have been handled in recent years (including me), at least according to one northern journalist.

UpHere Magazine_July 2016 cover cropped

Back in February, I wrote a rather critical review of an exclusive interview with polar bear researcher Ian Stirling that was published in the February issue of UpHere Magazine called, He speaks for the polar bears – with this lede under the title:

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

I said “Yeah, well – judge for yourself,” and pointed out some rather critical inaccuracies and obfuscations in Stirling’s answers that I backed up with references.

Well, the editor of that magazine, Tim Edwards, emailed me a few days later and said:

“...we wanted to try to clarify the issues and just talk hard science, no rhetoric. Lo and behold, we’re learning that even his opinion is by no means universally agreed-upon. So thank you for your criticism.”

In May, I was contacted by UpHere writer Dan Campbell, who spoke to me several times before writing this month’s article (15 July 2016), Lost in the numbers: The polar bear is getting more attention than ever, but that may be harming the animal more than helping. Have a look and decide if it clarifies any of the polar bear issues for you. Continue reading

Sea ice habitat Canada update for 23 July 2016 vs. 2014 & the start of bear problems

Sea ice breakup is always a little bit different year to year but since I have the maps archived, take a look at the differences and similarities at this date for this year compared to 2014…

Sea ice extent Canada 2016 July 23_CIS

Sea ice extent Canada 2014 July 23 CIS

Is there evidence that any polar bears – say Western Hudson Bay bears, for example – were negatively affected by sea ice levels in 2014? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, quite the opposite.

Polar bear guide and blogger Kelsey Eliasson, writing from Churchill, Manitoba, had this to say about the condition of bears and freeze-up that year (16 Nov. 2014):

“With these families appearing [heading out to the ice], it really sums up at just what a productive season this has been for the western Hudson Bay population. Any guide who knows their stuff will tell you this was a banner year for cubs, one we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Meanwhile, bears are starting to come ashore and cause a bit of grief:

Southern Hudson Bay (two days ago): “Polar bear shot after wandering through Kashechewan” [see map below for location: the bear shot was a cub that appears to have been separated from its mother and sibling, who were spotted several km away not causing any trouble]

Iqaliut, Baffin Island (this morning): “Polar bear rips 6 tents pitched in Iqaluit park”

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Critical spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point.

Relative importance of seasons polar bear graphic_PolarBearScience_June2016

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July are predator-savvy adults and subadults but since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival! Continue reading

Terrestrial food fight amongst polar bear researchers reflects political differences

With a few big guns on one side and some fringe folk on the other, a dichotomy of opinion has developed amongst polar bear researchers regarding whether or not consumption of land-based foods is making a difference to polar bear survival (or is likely to in the future).

Polar bears eating terrest foods WHB_Rockwell press release

It’s been going on for a while now. Last year, two US Geological Survey members of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) apparently got fed up with the scatter-shot of papers promoting terrestrial foods as a possible salvation for polar bears (e.g. Iles et al. 2013;  Iverson et al. 2014; Rockwell and Gormezano 2013a, 2013b). In April, they published a canon volley of a paper meant to blow all that ‘polar-bears-might-survive’ talk out of the water once and for all (Rode et al. 2015).

Note that although the PBSG didn’t bother to update their website with the IUCN Red List assessment when it came out last November, they had a link up to the USGS terrestrial feeding paper within 16 days (with an editorial summary in the “NEWS” section as well as a listing of the paper in the “RECOMMENDED READING” section). As I suggest below, this difference in treatment may not be a coincidence.

However, another group of non-PBSG researchers  haven’t given up just yet, as shown by the title chosen for the most recent news report (Alaska Dispatch News, 16 June 2016) on the just-finished International Bear Conference:

Want to know how a changing climate is affecting polar bears? Look at what they’re eating.

Apparently, Jeff Welker, a University of Alaska Anchorage researcher who is co-author on two recent papers on the subject of polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods (Tartu et al. 2016 and Rogers et al. 2015), gave a presentation at the conference that raised this topic yet again. His talk came on the heels of an earlier presentation by Todd Atwood, who suggested Southern Beaufort polar bears might benefit from staying onshore to eat left-over whale scraps instead of staying on the sea ice during the summer (even though he had no data to support that opinion – as I discussed in this post).

Here’s the question: is this dispute really about what polar bears eat or don’t eat when they’re on land – or is it symptomatic of the underlying politics of polar bears? [CBC documentary video by that name here]
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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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Silence of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group on the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment

It’s been six months and still the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has not updated its website with a link to the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears, which was made public with some fanfare in November 2015. They are not the only group still ignoring the Red List decision but their silence is the most damning – the IUCN is the parent body of their organization.

On May 7th, I wrote to the IUCN Red List folks (redlist@iucn.org) about this situation (excerpt below) but as yet have received no reply.

PBSG website banner May 10 2016

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US finally abandons unscientific bid to ban international polar bear trade

“The fight is over, for the time being. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to pursue an international ban on trade in polar bear products that the CITES COP17 gathering in South Africa this September.”

CITES 2017 US drops bid to ban polar bear trade_2 May 2016

From a news report at NunatsiaqOnline this morning (2 May 2016) – the only news outlet so far that has carried the news (U.S. drops bid to ban international trade in polar bear products).

You may or may not agree with the practice of sport hunting for polar bears but this move is huge.  For years, the US has been trying to bully the international community  into accepting their warped perception of Arctic species conservation (where what computer models say  might happen by 2050 trumps what is true today). Polar bear numbers have not declined due to global warming or over-hunting, and face no immediate threat of extinction.

Here is the only “announcement” made by US Fish & Wildlife, which came buried at the end of a lengthy blog post (dated 27 April 2016), which seems to indicate they have not really changed their minds but may not want to lose face by loosing again:

Regarding polar bears, though we remain concerned about the commercial use of polar bear hides as an additional threat to the species, we are not pursuing increased CITES protections at this time. We are putting our resources into working in collaboration with other polar bear range states to address climate change and mitigate its impacts on the polar bear as the overwhelming threat to the long-term future of the species.” [my bold]

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