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New Polar Bear Population Status Documents Withheld

Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Science

I suggested in my last post of 2013 that the biologists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) might have learned some lessons over the last year about the folly of withholding evidence, fudging data, and trying to hide good news. However, it appears that was wishful thinking.

5,000 polar bear births expected around New Year

In the course of writing the essay on my top posts of 2013, I went to the PBSG website to check something, and blow me over with a feather, found an announcement that had been added a few weeks ago (December 16, 2013) without a whisper to the media.

The old PBSG page, “Population status” – which used to say “The total number of polar bears worldwide is estimated to be 20,000 – 25,000” – has been replace by a notice entitled “Population status reviews.

The former estimate population estimate (“20,000 – 25,000”) can no longer be found on the website and no other figure is offered.

The sidebar menu option “Status table” says “will be published soon.”

I’ve copied the short PBSG notice in its entirety below (pdf here):

“Polar bears are not evenly distributed throughout the Arctic, nor do they comprise a single nomadic cosmopolitan population, but rather occur in 19 relatively discrete subpopulations. There is however an uncertainty about the discreteness of the less studied subpopulations, particularly in the Russian Arctic and neighbouring areas, due to very restricted data on live capture and tagging.

There is a new status table, agreed on by the group by Dec 1, 2013. Updated status and threats for all 13 subpopulations was presented at the Meeting of the Parties to the 1973 Agreement on the conservation of polar bears held in Moscoc [sic] December 4-5, 2013.

The new status table and assessments will be published as they are available in web format no later than February 1, 2014.” [Date on the bottom of the page is December 16, 2013; my bold]

No news is good news?

So, there were some significant outcomes from that closed-door meeting of PBSG scientists at the International Polar Bear Forum, aka Meeting of the Parties in early December (see posts about the meeting herehere, and here)! The PBSG biologists just decided not to say anything to anyone until 10 days after the meeting ended, and in the most unobtrusive way possible.

In contrast, at other official meetings of the PBSG at which population status reviews were conducted, press releases were issued as soon as the meeting was over. The press release for the last such meeting, held 29 June-3 July, 2009, was issued July 4, 2009. See the minutes of the discussion over that 2009 press release in Fig. 1 below; pdf of the press release here).

No press release was issued by the PBSG after this early December 2013 meeting and the announcement that a new population status review had been completed was posted on the PBSG website, without media fanfare, well after the meeting concluded.

And apparently, they couldn’t just release the documents in pdf format, like every other organization — they are making us wait until it’s in “web format”!


What exactly are they trying to hide – more good news?

Figure 1. Minutes of the discussion of what to do with their press release, from the Proceedings of the 15th Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) meeting (Obbard et al. 2010:11), at which a new status assessment table was generated. The finalize press release was posted on the PBSG website on July 4 and apparently distributed to suitable media contacts: Andy Revkin had a story up at his DotEarth blog (NY Times) on July 6, 2009.


The news itself: population size and boundary changes

Since there is no longer a reference to a specific population number on the PBSG website, I think we can safely conclude the former “20,000-25,000” figure is going to change, something I hadn’t expected until at least the middle of 2014.

If the population estimate had gone down, you can bet your last dollar we’d have heard about it from every available media outlet immediately after the meeting — so it must have gone up (more on that below).

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