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Media Misleads On Polar Bear Numbers

Media outlets have been reporting that polar bear numbers in Beaufort Sea north of Alaska have fallen 40 percent in just 10 years as Arctic sea ice melts and takes away hunting grounds.

The Guardian ran the headline, “Polar bear population in frozen sea north of Alaska falls 40% in 10 years.” The paper cited a study U.S. Geological Survey researchers, along with Canadian and U.S. researchers, claiming that there were only 900 polar bears in the Chukchi Sea region in 2010 — 40 percent lower than previous measures.

AFP echoed the Guardian, saying that “bears in the Arctic suffered sharp declines in the first decade of this century, losing about 40 per cent of their population.”

But these headlines misconstrue an important fact about the study: it found that while polar bear populations suffered between 2004 and 2006, their numbers largely recovered between 2007 and 2010. Furthermore, the recovery came even as Arctic sea ice coverage continued to shrink.

“The main story of this study is the remarkable recovery of the polar bear population by 2010 which has likely continued since then,” said Dr. Susan Crockford, a zoologist and polar bear expert. “To suggest that polar bear populations have been declining is hugely misleading.”

The Guardian wrote that “[w]inter ice has become more thin and increasingly mobile over the past few decades, leading it to break more frequently, creating ‘rough and jumbled’ ice conditions that are thought to make it more difficult for bears to capture seals.” The paper did acknowledge the Beaufort Sea polar bear recovery, but noted that sub-adult populations have continued to struggle.

Crockford says the study’s authors acknowledged the 2004 to 2006 decline in Beaufort Sea polar bear numbers was caused by thick spring ice conditions — which also caused a polar bear population dip in the mid-1970s.

“The authors have also acknowledged that the cause of the 2004-2006 decline was heavy spring ice conditions,” Crockford said. “They found no correlation for the decline with summer sea ice conditions.”

The USGS study found “a significant reduction in survival and abundance from 2004 through 2007” that “may have approached 50%.” The study added that improved “survival and stability in abundance at the end of the investigation are cause for cautious optimism.”

The year the study says Chukchi polar bears started to recover was 2007 which had the second-lowest September sea ice minimum ever recorded. The USGS report found that “measures of ice availability did not fully explain short-term demographic patterns in our data, suggesting that other aspects of the ecosystem contribute importantly to the regulation of population dynamics.”

“The low survival may have been caused by a combination of factors that could be difficult to unravel,” said Jeff Bromaghin, the study’s lead author, “and why survival improved at the end of the study is unknown. Research and monitoring to better understand the factors influencing this population continue.”

Polar bears were once the poster child of the environmental movement. They were depicted as starving and fighting for survival in a melting Arctic habitat because of man-made global warming.

Polar bears were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act because of global warming — the first animal to be listed because of potential global temperature rises.

But recent evidence has shown that polar bears may not be in as much danger as scientists and environmentalists once claimed. The global polar bear population has grown in recent decades, despite some controversy over what the real global population estimates are.

Researchers have also found that polar bears may have been a genetically distinct species for  one million years, meaning they have survived through periods of shrinking ice coverage and periods of high ice coverage.

“It seems logical that if polar bears survived previous warm, ice-free periods, they could survive another,” said Matthew Cronin, an animal geneticist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “This is of course speculation, but so is predicting they will not survive, as the proponents of the endangered species act listing of polar bears have done.”

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