ECN claims ‘Polar Bears Thriving’

September 17, 2007 at 4:03 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

‘Real-world evidence shows polar bear numbers are increasing rapidly throughout the Arctic.’

according to James M. Taylor of The Heartland Institute under the front-page headline ‘Teachers Misinformed on Climate Change’.

The full title of the article is ‘Alaska Teachers Indoctrinated with Misleading Global Warming Materials‘ as it appears in October 2007 copy of Environment & Climate News, ‘The Monthly Newspaper for Common-Sense Environmentalists’ which is read, we are told, by 56% of legislators.

Indeed, it would be a big cause for concern if it were true that American teachers were being misinformed on climate change, not to mention American legislators being misled.

Polar bear and cub by Scott Schliebe USFWS

Polar bear and cub by Scott Schliebe USFWS

For a reality check, we could listen to David Attenborough describing, with accuracy and honesty, the deteriorating conditions for the polar bear and its habitats.  Alternatively, take a quick glance back at a couple of excerpts from this recent report The appalling fate of the polar bear, symbol of the Arctic in The Independent:

… the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere else in the world. Satellite observations have revealed that its ice has shrunk to much its lowest ever level, raising fears that it had reached a “tipping point” where it would melt irreversibly, disappearing altogether in summer in less than 25 years, with incalculable global consequences.

And a separate Independent on Sunday investigation has found that polar bears are being shot in alarming numbers by rich trophy hunters from the US, Europe and Japan, even as their increasingly fragile habitat melts beneath them. Campaigners know that climate change and pollution are the biggest threats to polar bear survival, but believe that stopping sports hunting is symbolically important.

American hunters exploit a loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows them to get licences to import polar bear trophies from Canada. Some 953 have been granted or applied for since 1994. Senator Kerry is now co-sponsoring with Republican Senator Olympia Snowe a proposed Polar Bear Protection Act in the US Senate that would stop the skins being imported.

At the same time comes the polar bear investigation – conducted by the US Geological Survey – which concluded that the world population would be cut by two-thirds by the middle of the century as the result of the melting of the ice. This is likely to be over-optimistic because, as the survey itself admits, it is based on estimates of the rate of the ice’s disappearance that fall far short of what is actually taking place. New evidence also suggests that chemical pollution, wafted up to the Arctic, is interfering with the bears’ abilities to reproduce.

The study is hugely significant because it was ordered by President Bush’s Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, as a response to pressure to list the species under the US Endangered Species Act. Its conclusions make the listing virtually impossible to refuse. Once the species is covered by the act, US agencies would be bound by law to take into account how their decisions could affect it – leading to action to control the growth of the pollution that causes global warming.



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  1. Now I’m really disappointed and may have to blog you… Someone reports (truely or not I don’t know) that PB numbers are increasing, and you “rebut” this by… what? The numbers shot tell you nothing about the numbers left. Predictions of future declines don’t help either.
    If you don’t like the report that numbers are going up, you need to look at the sources and see if its true or not.
    [Reply: This is not a point-by-point technical rebuttal. Far from it. I was drawing attention to this claim and suggesting alternative ways to look at what is a complex situation. It is too easy to get drawn into a pure count-the-animals game; harder to establish a holistic appraisal of the situation, especially in a sound-bite or headline, for polar bear or beyond …!
    There may be particular areas where the polar bear is thriving, but its home is still melting away, and the definitive claim that ‘numbers are INCREASING RAPIDLY THROUGHOUT the Arctic’ seems to contradict most of the recent coverage of USGS reports, which are full of cautionary clauses which differ according to polar bear sex, age, body mass and condition, and affect litters, cub survival and mortality rates; and then there are capture probabilities … which means we cannot assume that scientists can simply catch all the animals, count the number of polar bear paws and divide by four 😉
    Hunting is intertwined in the polar bear story. As I understand the situation in one area where the bear numbers are increasing, it is because conservation efforts are successful—hunting of prey (seal) and predators (polar bear) is banned in certain zones—so populations in protected zones can rebound in the short term, but the habitats are still in decline in the long term, the timeframe in which climate change concerns dwarf others …]

  2. OK, looking at the sources will be tricky since he doesn’t bother provide any, but it still needs to be done!

  3. Hello William,

    The Telegraph has a story and pictures on the numbers of bears that are increasing in numbers in one region, because of conservation efforts (i.e. not because climate change is kind to them) while bears in other regions are decreasing.
    I shall try to get more precise numbers, though Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group probably has the best knowledge and ability to appraise this polar bear situation, and I am pasting his response here, or you can follow the link.

    Ask the Experts: Are Polar Bear Populations Increasing?
    Answered by Dr. Andrew Derocher
    Some recent media reports have cited inaccurate data concerning polar bears. For clarification on polar bear numbers, we turned to Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group.

    Dr. Derocher is a polar bear scientist with the University of Edmonton in Canada. He also serves on PBI’s Scientific Advisory Council.

    Question: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed that the polar bear be listed as a threatened species. Yet some news reports state that polar bear numbers are actually increasing. For example, the following paragraph appeared on the Fox News Web site:

    “In the 1950s the polar bear population up north was estimated at 5,000. Today it’s 20- to 25,000, a number that has either held steady over the last 20 years or has risen slightly. In Canada, the manager of wildlife resources for the Nunavut territory of Canada has found that the population there has increased by 25 percent.”

    If this is true, then why are scientists worried about population declines?

    Answer from Dr. Derocher: The various presentations of biased reporting ignore, or are ignorant of, the different reasons for changes in populations. If I thought that there were more bears now than 50 years ago and a reasonable basis to assume this would not change, then no worries. This is not the case.

    The bottom line here is that it is an apples and oranges issue. The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess. There is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses. We are sure the populations were being negatively affected by excess harvest (e.g., aircraft hunting, ship hunting,self-killing guns, traps, and no harvest limits). The harvest levels were huge and growing. The resulting low numbers of bears were due only to excess harvest but, again, it was simply a guess as to the number of bears.

    After the signing of the International Agreement on Polar Bears in the 1970s, harvests were controlled and the numbers increased. There is no argument from anyone on this point. Some populations recovered very slowly (e.g., Barents Sea took almost 30 years) but some recovered faster. Some likely never were depressed by hunting that much, but the harvest levels remained too high and the populations subsequently declined. M’Clintock Channel is a good example. The population is currently down by over 60% of historic levels due only to overharvesting. Some populations recovered as harvests were controlled, but have since declined due to climate-related effects (e.g., Western Hudson Bay). In Western Hudson Bay, previously sustainable harvests cannot be maintained as the reproductive and survival rates have declined due to changes in the sea ice.

    At this point, we lack quantitative data for an overall assessment of trend in Canada or Nunavut as a whole. There is, however, very strong evidence for a decline in Western Hudson Bay and the Southern Beaufort Sea based on quantitative studies. More recently, scientists working in the Southern Hudson Bay have reported a major decline in the condition of polar bears. A decline in condition was the precursor to the population decline in Western Hudson Bay. There is clear suggestion of a population decline due to over-harvest in Baffin Bay, Kane Basin and possibly Norwegian Bay.

    The point is that you cannot simply summarize the status of polar bears—the information lies in the individual populations. You cannot put the various time periods together into a simplistic overview. Sea ice is declining but again, it is not declining the same everywhere. Some small areas of multi-year ice may improve habitat for polar bears. This latter point, however, does not mean that the habitat in all areas will improve and the predictions are very clear that the primary habitat of polar bears is at risk.

    We can control harvests through management and these efforts are underway for several of the over-harvested populations. So far, I have not seen any movement on serious consideration of reducing greenhouse gases in North America (or other countries with few exceptions). Climate warming is not under control and I do not see the management changes coming to effect the needed changes in climate change emissions.

    Look at the messengers: lobby groups for big business say there is no problem. Yes, conservation groups moved the issue forward for listing under the Endangered Species Act but this was already an issue that was founded on scientific information. The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group was moving on a Vulnerable designation (the same as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act) before anybody heard of actions from environmental groups. Sea ice change and habitat loss is the key driving force. Ignore the bears for a moment and look at the evidence for sea ice change: NASA is a key player in looking at the actual decreases in sea ice. It is an easy matter to put the dots together: no habitat, no seals; no seals, no bears. This never was an issue of polar bears alone. The only effective conservation approach is to protect the habitat and this is an issue of climate change. You can distort the issue any way you so desire. At the end of the day, the sea ice is disappearing. Take away the habitat and the species follows shortly thereafter (or before).

    Comparing declines caused by harvest followed by recovery from harvest controls to declines from loss of habitat and climate warming are apples and oranges. Ignorant people write ignorant things.

  4. @William – “Look at the sources” is good advice indeed. It’s worth noting that the Heartland Institute could actually pretend – to the uninformed – that its “report” provides sources, through indirect references to NASA and the IPCC.
    There’s a vast difference between providing direct quotes and clear references and poaching credibility by paraphrasing selected points out of context. When writing an online report, direct links to sources are even easier, so a lack of them should immediately raise suspicion of either laziness or vested interest.
    In such circumstances, lacking reliable references, it’s worth checking the article’s authors/editors/publishers directly – and online, this can be as simple as reading the ‘About Us’ page. In this case the Heartland Institute’s own mission statement says, “Heartland’s mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” Links from there to the institute’s other sites, publications, biographies etc. confirm that it exists specifically to promote certain beliefs (e.g. “free-market environmentalism” – aka “business as usual”) rather than to provide unbiased reporting of any issue.

  5. Hi Hekai,

    I have another reason for not linking to pages in my posts, even if I do so in comments like this.
    My reason is that I only try to include links in posts that I think are safe and useful for kids to click on.
    As a result, sometimes I pepper a post with links, and other times I will refer to an article using its title or meta data precisely, without linking. If anyone wants to track down an article to which I refer, Google is invariably handy in that regard.
    FYI, way beyond polar bears …
    The October 2007 issue of Environment & Climate News reports on new developments in both the science and politics of climate change.

  6. Ah, my comment about ‘laziness or suspicion’ was aimed (evidently not as squarely as I thought) at those who ‘poach credibility’ in the way I described. As you say, your intended audience gives you good reason for not including direct links, but the important thing is that you rarely (if ever?) quote snippets out of context, and usually provide enough reference info for readers to find the original quote themselves. 🙂

  7. I’m no scientist but I have read that polar bear numbers are up in some areas due to strict conservation efforts and favorable weather pattern conditions, thus providing some polar bears with a terrific environment in which to thrive.
    I will say that thanks to Cute Knut of Zoo Berlin fame, I have come to love and respect polar bears, having read many books and articles and watched wonderful educational videos. There is a problem with ice packs forming for fewer months and the hibernating bears becoming too weak to swim the extra distance to them — the cubs often perish as they are not strong swimmers. The thought of darling polar bear cubs drowning is heart wrenching. As a result I have donated to and joined “adoption” programs offered by Polar Bears International, World Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildife, to name a few of the reputable groups trying to help these highly intelligent, majestically beautiful animals.
    An interesting fact is that they are being found to be at least as intelligent as the great apes. (This would make them more intelligent than many people judging by reactions to news of Global Warming.) They are also more docile than previously thought. At the polar bear capital of the world, in Churchill, Manitoba, since 1717 when it was founded only two people have been killed by polar bears despite many encounters. One was a youngster who was pounced to death after foolishly chasing and throwing snow balls at one and the other was a dimwit who roamed through polar bear territory after stuffing his pockets full of raw meat. Sadly, both blameless polar bears were hunted down and killed. Polar bears need our respect and support during their time of need. They face a dire future for many reasons.

  8. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your detailed comment!
    I support WWF too. Several years ago, WWF teamed with Canon and the Norwegian Polar Institute to provide a polar bear tracker, which I was looking at last week, and now there is a new version for Google Earth which is fantastic!

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