Despite New Report, Polar Bears Are Still Threatened
A new study by the government of Nunavut, a Canadian territory, claims polar bear populations are larger and healthier than previously thought. News media picked this up and erroneously added that previous predictions of polar bear decline were faulty. The Globe and Mail published an article headlined “Healthy Polar Bear Count Confounds Doomsayers,” that failed to provide a critical viewpoint on the new study until five paragraphs in, and then said the criticism was based on “details.” North Country Public Radio then picked up the biased story and quoted it. A Canadian Broadcasting Corp article failed to provide any dissenting viewpoint of the study at all.
Then a pundit took the ball and ran with it.
Top polar bear researchers have criticized statements made after the report. Here are seven reasons the claims of a growing and healthy polar bear population are misleading.
A polar bear in Churchill, Canada, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, waiting for sea ice to return. Photo: Andrew Castellano.
1. The articles say the new study conducted over one month, overturns 30 years of data showing a downward trend in polar bear reproduction and cub survival. Geoff York, Program Manager for U.S. Geological Survey’s Polar Bear Project said, “It is important to note that a single point estimate does not change 30+years of detailed population metric data that show alarming negative trends.”
Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group and professor of biology at University of Alberta, has been studying polar bear populations for 20 years. He adds, “The number (of cubs) observed is only 20-50% of the number seen in the 1980-90s. This is directly related to few cubs being produced and lower cub survival due to the shortened on ice hunting period and the subsequent poorer condition of the bears.”
According to a Nunatsiaq News article, Dr. Ian Stirling said climate change is forcing the bears to spend more time on land where there is virtually no food, females are on average 30 to 40 kilograms (65 to 90 pounds) lighter than they were in the early 1980s and are producing far fewer cubs.
2. The new study wasn’t done with the same method as the earlier population estimate it’s being compared to. Dr. Steven Armstrup, Scientist emeritus with the US Geological Survey, and 2012 finalist for the Indianapolis Prize in animal conservation, said, “this new aerial survey estimate cannot be compared to previous estimates, in order to estimate a trend, because it has used a different methodology and covered different geographic areas. Unfortunately, the press coverage of this survey has made the serious mistake of trying to make such comparisons.”
3. Supporters of the study, in focusing on a single metric – number of bears counted – are missing the big picture. Sea ice, a necessity for supporting the polar bear population, is in significant decline. “Long term trends clearly reveal substantial global reductions of the extent of ice coverage in the Arctic,” according to the IUCN, in explaining its listing of the bears as vulnerable, one step below endangered. Despite this, Nunavut Minister of Environment Daniel Shewchuk, in a statement released in 2010, a year before the study was conducted, said, “No known environmental or other factors are currently posing a significant or immediate threat to polar bears overall.”
DeRocher said, “Conservation status is based on a three-generation rule: for polar bears 36-45 years into the future. The sea ice predictions for this timeframe are dire. Polar bears were assessed globally by the US Fish and Wildlife in the most rigorous assessment to date: it found that polar bears warranted a threatened status and that this status included polar bears in Canada. It is important to note that since the US assessment, the information supporting this designation has only grown in many peer reviewed publications.”
4. The new study hasn’t been peer reviewed.
5. The article buried the fact that the sponsor of the study has a conflict of interest. Not until the bottom of the story did it mention the Nunavut government makes money on polar bear hunts, and stands to gain from a higher population assessment. The government’s media office did not respond to a request for comment.
A 2009 Toronto Star article quoted Lootie Toomasie, head of the Nattivak Hunters and Trappers Organization, saying a hamlet in Nunavut can raise around a quarter of a million dollars with 10 bear sport hunts (as opposed to subsistence hunts), typical for a year. A 2011 study upheld that figure, and said Nunavut was in the top two Canadian regions for deriving value from its hunting activities.
(Full disclosure: I work for a company that just released To The Arctic, a movie largely about polar bears, and the argument could be made that we stand to gain ticket sales from our protagonist being perceived as a threatened species.)
6. Claims that polar bears will adapt to the drastic changes occurring in their environment are not realistic. In the press release mentioned above Shewchuk said, “the species can and will adapt to changing and severe climatic conditions, as it has done for centuries.”
On the contrary, it took polar bears about 200,000 years to differentiate from grizzly bears, but Dr. Andrew Derocher said, “(what) we’re asking an animal to do, in the space of less than 100 years, is to lose those adaptations, and go back to being a largely plant-eating animal.”
7. The articles cite observations of more bears by hunters as evidence the polar bear population is increasing. York, said this reflects that there are more polar bears near human settlements because they are pushed on land in greater numbers, for longer durations, by diminishing sea ice.
It is important to note that this criticism is in no way intended to diminish the significance of the Inuit perspective. Dr. Stirling said he has the utmost of respect for Inuit knowledge and observations, and more than one researcher I spoke with said it is important to take them into account alongside research data.
“Progress in polar bear conservation can only occur if everyone works together, using information from all possible sources, scientific and traditional,” said Stirling.
In conclusion, inaccurate statements by a biased government agency, and poor reporting propagated by even poorer reporting, led to the public receiving a message that was almost completely opposite to the reality on the ground. This is not only a distraction in the effort to protect these truly threatened animals, but an unnecessary point of confusion for the public on whether to take seriously scientists claims about environmental degradation and climate change.