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Twenty Good Reasons Not To Worry About Polar Bears

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Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Science

1) Polar bears are still a conservation success story — with a global estimate almost certainly greater than 25,000, we can say for sure that there are more polar bears now than there were 40 years ago (Fig. 1). 

Sadly, although completing a global survey was one of the primary objectives of the PBSG at its inception 47 years ago, it has still not provided one. The current PBSG estimate is about 20,000-25,000 bears, although with several subpopulations still uncounted (Fig. 1), the actual figure is almost certainly a good deal higher (e.g. see point #3). Even with this lack of precision, the global estimate is too high to qualify the polar bear as ‘threatened’ with extinction based on current population levels – all of the concerns expressed regarding polar bears are about the future.

Figure 1. Upper graph uses totals reported in PBSG status tables (to 2013), with min/max; Lower graph uses the same figures, but adds back in the so-called "inaccurate" estimates dropped between 2005 and 2013 (in 2014, the PBSG finally did the same). The 1960 figure * is a ballpark estimate.

2) The most recent status assessment for polar bears, published by Environment Canada in May 2014, shows only two subpopulations are “likely in decline,” down from four listed by the PBSG as declining in 2013 and seven in 2010 (Fig. 2). Baffin Bay earns its ‘likely decline’ status due to suspicions of over-harvesting(so far not confirmed), not sea ice decline. And the recent assessment of Southern Beaufort bears (see point #7 below), which was based on a newly-formulated (i.e. untested) population estimate model that used a truncated data set, recorded a decline acknowledged to have beencaused by thick ice conditions in spring, not summer ice declines.

Figure 2. Most recent global polar bear population status assessment (far right), using figures from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group assessment (2013) and Environment Canada (May 2014). Note that of the two subpopulations denoted as being on a likely declining trend, BB (Baffin Bay) is suspected to be declining due to over-hunting and SB (Southern Beaufort) had an unfinished rebound caused by thick spring ice conditions in 2004-2006; a more recent survey (2012) indicated SB numbers were higher than the previous 10 years. Note the improvement since 2010 (upper left) and even 2013 (lower left). Note also the number of regions considered “data deficient,” which have had no population survey or no recent one.

3) A first-ever Kara Sea population estimate completed in late 2014 potentially adds another 3200 or so bears to the global total. This estimate (range 2,700-3,500), published by Russian biologists, has not yet been added to the official global count.

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