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No Reliable Data on Historical Polar Bear Numbers – A Note from Nichole Hoskin

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have become a symbol of global warming, and their predicted decline a sign of worst to come, but until very recently population estimates were really just educated guesses. Current polar bear numbers are estimated to total between 20,000 and 25,000.

On May 14 2008, when announcing the decision to list polar bears as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, Secretary for the U.S. Department of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne stated,

“Although the population of bears has grown from a low of about 12,000 in the late 1960’s to approximately 25,000 today, our scientists advise me that computer modeling projects a significant population decline by the year 2050.”

But there are no published papers or reports to support the claim that there were about 12,000 polar bears forty years ago.

At the 1968 meeting of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group in Alaska, the Canadian Wildlife Service representatives suggested that numbers were as low as 5,000 in the 1950s and 1960s.

Current Chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Andrew Derocher, has stressed,

“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.”

But how can Dr Derocher be sure that polar bear populations were being negatively affected by harvesting if there is no hard data on population numbers for the same period?

In 1972, at the 3rd Working Meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist group the Norwegian representative, Thor Larson, suggested there were as many as 20,000 in the late 1960s. Larson said,

“Merely by summarising the various national counts, which still must be considered inaccurate, one reaches the conclusion that the worlds total polar bear population is probably closer to 20,000 animals, than to the lower figures often suggested.”

Just maybe there have always been about 20,000 polar bears in the Arctic?

Nichole Hoskin is a research assistant at the Institute of Public Affairs and is adding to the Environmental Wiki associated with this blog.

———————
Other blog posts by Nichole Hoskin on polar bears include:
Polar Bears Can Survive where there is no Summer Sea Ice: A Note from Nichole Hoskin, August 20, 2008. http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/blog/archives/003342.html

This blog is a gathering place for people with a common interest in politics and the environment. We strive for tolerance and respect. We don’t always agree with what we publish, but we believe in giving people an opportunity to be heard.

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213 Responses to “No Reliable Data on Historical Polar Bear Numbers – A Note from Nichole Hoskin”

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  1. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Travis,

    >Why do these predictions invalidate the observational data from the 1993 and 1998 papers?

    >>Not saying they do.

    Then what is your point? If they don’t invalidate the observational data and make contrary claims, then how do you know their claims are accurate since the existing data challenges the contrary claim?

  2. Comment from: Ann Novek


    Nichole ,
    I will just say that I hope you’re decent enough and keep out Dr Aars name from our internal discussion,
    that has nothing to do with Dr Aars scientific integrity.

    Thanks
    Ann Novek

  3. Comment from: Travis


    Nichole,

    >No Ann I was talking about the claim that polar bears live of fat stores exclusively during the open water season. This is obvious from looking at the 1998 and 1993 papers I cited because they all point to the fact that we need more research before we can assume that they only live off fat stores

    Is this s’posed to be in response to my question? It’s obvious that these animals live mostly off fat stores Nichole. What do the males do? Some females and subadults eat some berries in this populaton. What has happened to the conditiin of the bears and the recruitment rate since these two papers came out? Why is it that all PB researchers seem to be in aggreement that the animals live off their fat stores? They SUPPLEMENT their diets at times in certain areas. NO ONE is disputing this and they never have.

    >In fact, since you have found a paper on climate change and WHB is mentioned, but there is no mention of the observations of polar bears eating berries etc, that is exactly my point.

    Which point was that? That they can sustain themselves off berries or this… ‘ >Since Clarke and Stirling and Derocher and Stirling raise the prospect that females and cubs eating berries could improve chances of cub survival–this raises the prospect that there will be a higher recruitment rate.’

    You have continued to dodge the fact that two authors from the original ‘berry’ paper do not think PBs can sustain themselves on berries. You have also ignored the recent research on the western Hudson Bay pop which shows that these animals, despite actually having berries to eat (whcich most pops don’t have) have decreased their fedundity and body condition.

    >You wanted me to mention climate change theory in my 1st piece.

    Bullshit! I did not ‘want’ you to do any such thing. I questioned you as to why you did not include the 1993 c/c paper, it does not mean I ‘wanted’ you to mention the theory at all at. Let’s see how you twist that around some more eh?

    >The piece was a short piece, not a PhD, so it is not going to cover every related argument involved.

    Pffftt!! Including the other points raised in the papers themselves like what the male PBs do and why the females head inland where the berries are.

    >I am not interested in anyone’s opinion unless I know whether or not there is observational data to supports the claim made.

    And what of Mott’s fabulous calculations? Is that evidence enough for you? Hence why you ignore things such as the research from western Hudson Bay about the conditions of the bears. You have cherry-picked you way through both threads and admitted that anyone who disagrees with you gets ‘bitten’. You have demonstrated you are not open to other ideas and yet accuse posters such as myself of not being receptive of different views.

    >I completely agree that if you look at the research on polar bear population numbers before the 1990s, they were only able to make inaccurate estimates, which was acknowledge by the scientists.

    So what? There are no accurate estimate for the historial populations of many, many species prior to hunting, human disturbance, disease outbreaks, etc, etc. You have this issue that since there were no accurate estimates (certainly not accurate for a non-PB expert like yourself) that the researchrs can’ extrapolate whether the current populations have been increasing, decreasing or ‘there have always been about 20,000 polar bears in the Arctic’.

    Researchers do the best they can with what they have (equipment, funds, weather conditions etc). You seem to think that the natural sciences should be an exact art. Perhaps that is because it is something you simply don’t understand and approach with preconceived and biased ideas?

  4. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Ann,

    I’m not sure what you mean on ‘keeping Dr Aars out of our internal discussion’.

  5. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Travis,

    I don’t expect exact data on most things.

    I am only raising the lack of accurate data because we need to acknowledge data inaccuracies when they exist. My issue is about the language used. If there is a large margin of error/uncertainty, then scientists need to use qualified language to let the reader know that it is the best we can do with problematic data.

    However, it is an entirely different matter to make a statement in language that conveys it as a statement of fact, when the data is problematic and uncertain. To assert a claim as a fact when the there is no reliable data is to misrepresent the state of scientific knowledge.

    Isn’t part of the point of academic science to identify areas where further research is needed to improve our knowledge? If scientists are being deceptive about the state of knowledge, then research will potentially be focused on false assumptions.

  6. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Travis,

    I don’t expect exact data on most things.

    I am only raising the lack of accurate data because we need to acknowledge data inaccuracies when they exist. My issue is about the language used. If there is a large margin of error/uncertainty, then scientists need to use qualified language to let the reader know that it is the best we can do with problematic data.

    However, it is an entirely different matter to make a statement in language that conveys it as a statement of fact, when the data is problematic and uncertain. To assert a claim as a fact when the there is no reliable data is to misrepresent the state of scientific knowledge.

    Isn’t part of the point of academic science to identify areas where further research is needed to improve our knowledge? If scientists are being deceptive about the state of knowledge, then research will potentially be based on false assumptions.

  7. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Travis,

    Did you change your name to Ann? Since your name is not Ann, the comment is not directed to you. That’s how addressing a comment to a named person usually works.

  8. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Travis,

    Other examples of ‘obvious’ opinions that have been proven wrong–by applying rigorous scientific methodology and observations:

    1. the world is flat

    2. the solar system revolves around the earth

    3. there is an in-land sea in Australia

    and

    4. potentially that polar bears live exclusively off fat stores during open water season in WHB–

    I accept that it is a reasonable hypothesis but we cannot resolve which competing hypothesis is correct until scientists do further research.

  9. Comment from: Travis


    >I’m not sure what you mean on ‘keeping Dr Aars out of our internal discussion’.

    I would have thought it was pretty self-explanatory. But then I’m not a lawyer!

    >Isn’t part of the point of academic science to identify areas where further research is needed to improve our knowledge?

    Most papers will acknowledge in their discussions/conclusions that further research is needed. They may also suggest what that involves. Have you not read his before Nichole? Tsk.

    >If scientists are being deceptive about the state of knowledge, then research will potentially be focused on false assumptions.

    Regarding PBs, this statement seems to be rooted in your own biases and inability to interpret scientific data properly.

    >Did you change your name to Ann? Since your name is not Ann, the comment is not directed to you. That’s how addressing a comment to a named person usually works.

    Um ah, touchy, touchy. Another bite from the tiger! LOL!! It was an innocent enough question Nichole. Actually I’m NT and Libby, remember? Oh yeah that’s right, it’s ok for Mott to make claims about pseudonyms, but not me. Such a fair hand you deal…

    >Other examples of ‘obvious’ opinions that have been proven wrong–by applying rigorous scientific methodology and observations:…4. potentially that polar bears live exclusively off fat stores during open water season in WHB–

    So why has the research not been done Nichole? Why do most PB researchers (note, not lawyers) say that they live off their fat reserves OR supplement their diet in some areas during some periods? What do the male PBs in western Hudson Bay who do not have access to berries do, going by your 1993 and 1998 papers??? Please answer this because you have managed to avoid the issue of the recent research on this population that shows they have been losing body condition and reproductive success. I wonder why.

  10. Comment from: Libby


    I see Ian Mott still refuses to take responsibility for what he writes and attributes to others. He always has and always will be allowed to. Apologies are thin on the ground here, so people should be grateful when they are offered to them.

    I like these selections of quotes though from Nichole to Travis, particularly in light of Mr Mott’s chronic behaviour to certain people here and his reliance on others to do his googling for him whilst he dreams up ideas he can not substantiate:

    “Applying your logic back to you, can we assume that all people who come here and agree with you are you posting under a fake name?”

    “It’s ironic that you will jump on Ian Mott when you feel he is misrepresenting your views, yet you have no problem with accusing me of misrepresenting articles and refuse to justify this new claim.”

    (and I particularly like)

    “Yes I have made positive comments to Ian Mott. Did it occur to you that I was doing it because I know that you and others will attack him and I appreciate his contributions because he provides a different view to the majority of commentors.”

    “If I let you get away with your attacks on Ian, this could potentially lead to a situation where only people who agree to you contribute. Since that is not a debate, what is the point.”

    “its amazing that those who tend to agree with each other tend to support each other. Kinda like what I was trying to do with Ian Mott, although since I don’t have any evidence of David’s motivations, I am not going to speculate on them.”

    “I am going to respond to comments, to put up the contrary viewpoint and provide a balanced discussion and consider a diverse range of sources and evidence.”

    “Who is selective and inconsistent?”
    ~~~~~~~~
    Ann asked Dr. Aars:

    ” Why are historical polar bear population estimates uncertain?

    Reply from Dr. Aars: ” The longer back in time we go , the less research was done to estimate populations / numbers.”

    To which Nichole replied:

    “Ann,

    I am not sure that I agree with Dr Aars on that one. From what I have read of the Polar Bear Specialist Group Meeting Documents and papers on the methodology of estimating population numbers for polar bears, there was researchers trying to accurately estimate numbers, although there were logistical and technological problems that prevented them making accurate estimates.

    The main area that the Polar Bear Specialist Group was researching from 1965 and through the 1970s was population numbers. They tried various methods but there were always problems.”

    Perhaps Dr Aars saying the further back the less research can indeed point to the fact that the ways and wherefores for doing ‘valuable’ research did not exist, regardless of trying, therefore of course there was less research done that could be useful for answering questions about populations. He did not dismiss that population estimates were done. His interpretation and Nichole’s is what is at stake here. Personally I would agree with Ann and go with Dr Aars. But of course “there is a big difference between expert opinion and being able to conclusively prove that the experts (sic) view is correct.”
    ~~~~~~~
    Regarding researchers and getting their views to questions posed, Nichole has written:

    “However, I would like a detailed response from Derocher on his views on what I have written. But that is something that he can choose to do if he wishes, after he has read the links I sent him.”

    “I don’t expect Derocher to respond on the blog. I explained this all above to Travis, if Derocher wants to respond, he can email me.”

    “If your not interested in discussing the scientific observation data, rather than just asserting ‘expert opinions’ as if it is observational data/fact and making petty personal attacks, then I have nothing to say to you.”

    “I am not interested in anyone’s opinion unless I know whether or not there is observational data to supports the claim made.”

    Reading through, it does seem that Dr Derocher has not emailed Nichole in relation to her questions/the content of this thread. Of course I could be wrong, like most of those who disagree with Nichole seem to be (including the experts).

    But Ann has written:

    “The serious scientists participate in scientific discussions in peer reviewed papers and perhaps e-mailing private persons but hardly on any silly and unscientific blogs.”

    Obviously Ann received some correspondence from Dr Derocher!

    And as an aside…

    I thought Graeme Bird had left this thread well and truly alone until I read from Nichole:

    “I am aware that some scientists have made claims like that. The point I am making is that THERE IS NO EVIDENCE TO PROVE THE CLAIMS.

    Without the evidence, the opinions are potentially wrong and cannot be conclusively proven to be correct”

    I think some people here have done a mighty fine job of providing Nichole with EVIDENCE and differing views. I have not seen many of these considered by Nichole, who seems to instead favour Ian Mott’s self-constructed mathematical calculations. There is a lot of inconsistency here, and a valiant attempt to contort what has been written in order to squeeze some sort of EVIDENCE to support an existing view that is pertinent to the bandwagon of AGW. Going by Nichole’s professional training, I don’t think any of us should be surprised by that. Never argue with a lawyer, unless you are a lawyer.

  11. Comment from: Nichole Hoskin


    Libby,

    Your speculation on me is the funniest thing I have read in a while. I thought we were discussing the science of polar bears, not having comedy hour.

    However, you seem far more interested in speculating on me…..nothing better to do with your time?

  12. Comment from: Libby


    “I thought we were discussing the science of polar bears”

    Some here have been trying to, but you can remove yourself from the “we”.

  13. Comment from: Annimal Ann’s Eco News » Jennifer Marohasy’s Blog and Polar Bears


    [...] http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2008/08/no-reliable-data-on-historical-polar-bear-numbers-a-note-fr… [...]

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