Tag Archives: York

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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Sickening effect of satellite radio collars polar bear researchers don’t want you to see

A report at CBC News (Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar,” Martin Zeilig, 28 October 2015) shows the bloodied neck of a male Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear, taken near Kaktovik, Alaska, whose radio collar is too tight.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Researchers should not be putting collars on young animals and male bears – they know the problems! Who did the USGS have working for them that did not know this or couldn’t tell a male bear from a female? [see below] The other question is: how many more bears are in the same condition but out of sight on the sea ice – or dead due to their injuries? Don’t forget, this is a population that researchers claim is endangered because of climate change but which really declined recently due to thick spring ice in 2004-2006. [SJC – ambiguity fixed]

UPDATE 28 October 2015: 5:41 pm – in a comment under the CBC story, Churchill polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson wrote (“4 hours ago”):

“This isn’t a he, it’s a she. Saw this bear during our trip, its a female with one cub.

Male polar bears are not radio collared.”

The statement in the CBC article that the bear with the collar is a male thus seems to be an error.  That makes more sense but does not negate the suffering of the animal.

UPDATE 5 November 2015: 8:30 am – I just received an email from a reader who contacted USGS about this bear and with their permission, I have copied the response below (leaving out the USGS contact person’s details), my bold:

Hello xxxx,

I do not believe USGS banded the bear. I have talked with staff at the USGS Alaska Science Center and found that the polar bear in the news was an adult male. The USGS scientists will band female polar bears, but not male bears. If you have questions, see this site. there is a link to the staff on the left. Click it and you will see a list with the project manager at the top. http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/polar_bears/tracking.html

It may be that USGS is accepting the word of one of the experts quoted in the story [Vince Crichton] that the bear is a male and have denounced their involvement on that basis. Obviously, other polar bear researchers must be working in the area, and Geoff York statements (below) suggest a crew from University of Alberta, led by Andrew Derocher.  But if Kelsey Eliasson is right that this is a female with a cub (see above update), it may indeed be a USGS bear, perhaps one who’s collar has stopped transmitting. The plot thickens.
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Barents Sea polar bears in excellent condition say Norwegian biologists

Conditions this year (2015) in the Barents Sea were excellent according to the polar bear researchers who work there (“Polar bears were as fat as pigs”).

Barents Sea bear 2015 August Cobbing_NPI
A new survey just completed for a population count showed the bears were are in excellent condition – except the injured ones, of course, which some news organizations are promoting as evidence of harm from global warming-induced sea ice changes because an activist photographer  – not scientists – said so.

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Are Polar Bears Really Endangered?

Christina Wu at the Urban Times (July 3, 2014) recently asked this question. She came up with a surprisingly balanced argument but some predictable responses from IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) biologists. As a consequence, she overlooked some critical facts that make a big difference to the answer.

Figure 1. Are polar bears really endangered? The US Fish and Wildlife Service thinks so, but only because Steven Amstrup, based on a computer model projecting sea ice out to 2050, said so (Amstrup et al. 2007). This information has been used by the Center for Biological Diversity and other NGOs, like WWF and Polar Bears International (where Amstrup is now employed), to solicit donations.

Figure 1. Predictions of polar bear population declines by 2050 are being used by the Center for Biological Diversity, WWF and Polar Bears International to solicit donations.

UPDATED 18 May 2015 – see below.

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