Just out from the City of Churchill: few polar bears reported onshore for the week of 17-23 July 2017 (week 2) but those seen “appear to be in great shape.”
Update 24 July 2017 12:20 PM: Just spotted this blog report from “Churchill Polar Bears” that I somehow missed last week, which includes what seems to be the first polar bear photo’s of the season (of a sow and two chubby cubs) that are also in fine condition.
The photos were taken by Churchill photographer and guide Alex De Vries on Thursday 13 July and I hope he doesn’t mind my including one of those here as documentary evidence of the good body condition of this mother and both her cubs — see more photos at the Churchill Polar Bears blog post dated 14 July here.
Compare last week’s PB Alert report above to last year’s (below):
The first activity report of the Churchill Polar Bear Alert Program has been released for 2017. It comes on the same week as last year’s (so about the same dates for first bears ashore both years), and reports pretty much the same activity.
Odd that this year’s report contains no mention whatsoever of the condition of the bears as did last year’s (see below), which may have brought criticism for spoiling the media ‘message’ that WHB bears are suffering because of reduced sea ice. Better no comment at all than good news, eh?
Sea ice for the week of 10 July off Western Hudson Bay this year consisted of a broad strip of thick first year ice (>1.2m thick) just off shore.
The ice charted above looked like this on a standard ice map:
There are no other reports that I could find of polar bears ashore along the coast of Western Hudson Bay, so these bears must be the first wave.
Today, polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher posted a progress report via twitter on the annual journey ashore of the Western Hudson Bay bears tagged by his University of Alberta research team that shows virtually all of the bears are still out on the sea ice.
After months of gloomy reports on the state of the Hudson Bay sea ice, it’s clear from the map Derocher posted (below) that only one bear out of 12 still transmitting has come ashore so far, although he comments that “some tags haven’t reported lately” (the purple icons are ear tags put on males &/or young bears while the blue icons are collars put on adult females):
Oddly, the same comment was made almost a month ago about these same bears and the suggestion was made that these animals “may be swimming to shore”:
Money quote: Today Derocher remarked that “bears may be shifting behaviour to stay out on less ice” to explain why the tagged bears have still not come ashore as he expects them to do.
Perhaps if he used a different ice chart, it might make more sense (see below). However, the same thing has been happening year after year: WHB polar bears stay on the ice much longer than Derocher predicts but he does not change his expectations or the type of ice chart he uses to track the bears.
As I’ve pointed out before (because this is what field researchers have stated), polar bears have a tough time catching seals after about mid-June or so but they may still prefer to be on the sea ice than on land, even if it’s low concentration ice.
There’s been no word as yet, either from tour operators or polar bear researchers, that Western Hudson Bay polar bears have come ashore for the summer/fall season. Andrew Derocher reported at the end of June that the bears tagged by his team were still on the ice and as I write this, has not yet reported them ashore.
That pattern is consistent with the presence of thick ice along the west coast of the Bay — from well north of Churchill to the south of Wapusk National Park — for the last few weeks. The weekly chart for 3 July 2017 below from the Canadian Ice Service shows that virtually all of the ice remaining is thick first year ice (>1.2m, dark green on this map):
By the 9 July, the extent of this patch of ice was somewhat reduced but still a very prominent feature over the Bay, suggesting that if adult seals are using this ice as a refuge while molting, some bears may still be attempting to hunt even though their success rate may not be very high:
Bottom line: As has been the pattern for more than a decade, 2017 will not go down in history as an especially early year for WHB polar bears coming off the ice for the summer/fall season but instead may be as late as last year, when lots of bears were reported off the ice by mid-July at Seal River (just north of Churchill), all in excellent condition.
It remains to be seen if the condition of bears will be as good this year as they were in 2016, given the late start to the season. But it does mean that the lack of trend in breakup dates since 2001 continues: breakup of the sea ice in WHB since 2001 has been about one week later than it was before 1998 (Castro de la Guardia 2017; Cherry et al. 2013; Lunn et al. 2016).
If some polar bear struggle to survive this year it will be due to the late freeze-up date last fall combined with challenging winter conditions over Hudson Bay, not because of an early breakup of the sea ice.
And while it is certainly true that the overall trend in time spent onshore by WHB polar bears since 1979 has increased by about three weeks, the lack of a continued trend since 2001 is not what was expected or predicted, especially given the marked decline in global sea ice levels that have made headlines since 2007 (Crockford 2017), and the predictions of how devastating such low levels of ice would be to polar bears in areas like Hudson Bay that have to deal with a total disappearance of sea ice in summer and early fall.
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged breakup, Churchill, global warming, hunting, melting ice, polar bear, predictions, sea ice, Seal River, shore, western hudson bay
Polar bear population estimates for Western Hudson Bay have recently become contentious because one specialist has been making statements that confuse the issue. As we all wait for the release of the report on the WHB aerial survey of 2016, it’s worth going over the recent history of these counts and what they have revealed.
The official count for bears in WHB (used by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, the IUCN Red List, and Environment Canada) is 1030, based on an aerial survey of the entire region conducted in 2011 (Stapleton et al. 2014).
Since last year, Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta) has been telling any media pundit who will listen that WHB polar bears have declined from about 1200 bears in the 1980s to only 800 or so bears today (one example here) — a statement that is clearly not true. In recent months, however, whether due to complaints from the public or from his colleagues, he’s qualified that statement by saying it’s the number of bears in the “core” area of WHB that has declined.
But is Derocher’s revised statement a clear scientific interpretation of the facts? Have a look at the details below and see if you come to the same decision I have: that it’s not possible to compare WHB ‘core’ area polar bear population estimates over time.
Posted in Life History, Population, Sea ice habitat
Tagged breakup dates, Churchill, counting polar bears, Derocher, early breakup, estimates, Ontario, polar bear, population numbers, Wapusk National Park, western hudson bay
In recent years, sea ice loss over Hudson Bay has begun with open water in the NW corner (which is just as likely due to prevailing offshore winds as ice melt) rather than along the east coast but this year that patch of ice is smaller than its been for the last two years. In addition, despite two patches of open water at either end of the Beaufort Sea, most of the coast of Alaska is still covered in thick ice — much more than existed last year, yet masses of polar bears did not die as far as I know (actually, WHB bears came ashore in excellent condition last year).
Compare to previous years: