Some scientists still think it’s OK to mislead the public to promote climate change alarm
February 27th is International Polar Bear Day, and what interesting timing it happens to be this year. In recent weeks the media have been all over the news that the Russian village of Belushaya Guba, on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the southern Barents Sea had declared a state of emergency because more than 50 aggressive and fearless polar bears had invaded the community. Protected status for the bears meant deadly force was not an option for terrified residents, yet non-lethal efforts to get the bears to leave had been futile.
Predictably, the blame was immediately put on sea-ice loss due to climate change — not by a scientist but by a Norwegian journalist who initially reported the story, adding in his own homemade, unscientific analysis. Pundits came out of the gate later, to add further layers of hyperbole, even after the original journalist followed up with another story recanting his original theories, headlined “Well-fed polar bears are not necessarily stuck at Novaya Zemlya due to climate change, experts say.”
The primary problem was, in fact, the village’s garbage, with too many bears being a close second. There had been ice enough in late November to allow the bears to leave Novaya Zemlya as they usually do in the fall but they did not. Dozens of fat bears chose to stay for the winter because of easy access to stores of food and an open-air garbage dump.
A few days after military personnel arrived and got serious about running the chubby troublemakers out of town, the bears took to the ice. But a week later, CNN was still pushing the imminent climate-change catastrophe meme using video footage of fat, healthy bears.
The story was reminiscent of the trouble that Churchill, Man. had with polar bears in the late 1960s, when bear numbers were burgeoning because of new restrictions on hunting them. As polar bear specialist Ian Stirling and colleagues described in a 1977 Canadian Wildlife Service report, increasing numbers of fearless bears wandered the streets of Churchill, which had three open-air dumps that bears frequented day and night:
“…in November 1968, up to 40 polar bears at any one time could be seen in the vicinity of the Fort Churchill dump, and 60 to 80 bears were estimated to be frequenting the settlements.”
Bears attacked residents on a regular basis and a young Inuit man was killed. They broke into houses, killed dogs, and frightened people out of their wits. But at least when the ice came in the fall, Churchill bears left of their own accord.
Churchill now has its garbage under control and a Polar Bear Alert Program that is the envy of the Arctic. But it was expensive and took years to achieve such exemplary results. Few communities can muster those kinds of resources to deal with problem bears, especially Inuit hamlets in Canada and Greenland. In Nunavut, many residents of these small towns are terrified by the number of recent fatal attacks and close calls.
Two young Inuk men — one from Arviat, the other from Naujaat — were mauled to death last summer after years of Nunavut residents complaining that polar bear problems were spiralling out of control. Residents insist the spike is due to increased numbers of bears and that the bears they see (like those on Novaya Zemlya) are fat and healthy.
But biologists insist polar bear numbers are declining, especially in Western Hudson Bay, and that bears invade communities because sea-ice loss has deprived them of hunting habitat. Inuit say bears are not starving and numbers are up virtually everywhere, including Western Hudson Bay. A draft management plan released by the Nunavut government in November said, “Inuit believe there are now so many bears that public safety has become a major concern.”
As I reported in the 2018 State of the Polar Bear Report, the latest survey and research results suggest that polar bears probably number about 29,500 across the Arctic, with a wide margin of potential error. That’s up since 2005, when the count was about 24,500, despite low summer sea ice since 2007. Polar bears have proven to be more flexible in their habits and more capable in open water than scientists assumed. Long-term trends in sea ice cannot be used to explain individual events, like the mauling deaths this summer in Nunavut or the invasion of fat bears on Novaya Zemlya.
Furthermore, scientists who support the use of polar-bear tragedy porn by media and conservation activists to promote climate-change hysteria don’t do themselves any favours. Two years ago, biologist Steven Amstrup from Polar Bears International condoned the use of a now infamous starving polar bear video to spread climate alarmism: National Geographic later had to apologize for the misrepresentation. But University of Alberta biologist Andrew Derocher’s recent online comment about the Belushaya Guba bears (“it may not be climate change but it’s consistent with the predicted impacts of climate change”) suggests that some scientists still think it’s OK to mislead the public about polar bears when promoting climate change alarm.
Escalating problems with polar bears across the Arctic in all seasons are not what climate change looks like. They’re a sign of ever-increasing numbers of polar bears.
Susan Crockford is a zoologist and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria. She blogs about polar bears at www.polarbearscience.com.