So, how many polar bears are there?

Recently I wrote a blog post about the potential for negative impacts of mis-infomration about species and the environment. In my blog post, Do Species Suffer From Poor Communication?, I explained how someone at an arctic photography presentation I was at this past winter, commented that northern locals (Inuit) encountering more polar bears meant that there are more polar bears. In other words, if locals were encountering and seeing more bears on the land, this meant that the polar bear population was increasing and all the worry about the potential for polar bears to go extinct was bunk.

This bothered me. There is a huge and untested assumption implicit in this fellow’s assertion. He’s assuming that the frequency of encountering bears is directly related to the number of bears in the population. Just because you see more bears, doesn’t mean there are more bears. What if locals encounter/see more bears because bears are not getting enough food in the wild and so these hungry bears are coming closer to humans’ communities in search of food? In this scenario, there could actually be fewer bears in the local population, but people see them more frequently because they come close to humans more often.

I recently saw a really interesting webinar about polar bears. It was given by Natural Habitat Adventures, an adventure tour operator associated with the World Wildlife Fund. It was a great webinar. It included a talk by a polar bear biologist. What intrigued me about her talk was that she addressed the issue of the current status of polar bear populations around the globe. In this biologist’s presentation, she showed the figure below – a map of the world’s circumpolar region and the status of polar bear populations.

polar bear population graph

If you have a look at the map, you’ll see that of the 18 polar bear populations define on the map, 6 of them are listed as being in decline. Seven of them are listed as being data deficient, meaning that scientists just don’t have enough information about the populations to say what is happening to them.  Four populations are listed as stable, meaning they are neither increasing or decreasing. And finally,  3 populations are listed as increasing.

There are some notable take home messages from this figure showing polar bear populations status. For roughly half of the polar bear populations around the world, we have no idea what is happening to them. They span western Alaska, across Russia, to Greenland. That’s a huge part of the polar bear’s population for which we have no information.

A second notable take home message from the figure is that the populations in decline, shown in pink, are not small. They cover a substantial chunk of the polar bear population in Canada.

Perhaps most notable and relevant, is that the figure shows three populations in green, populations which are increasing. One large population is in the Labrador region; one small population and one medium-sized population in the central Canadian arctic are listed as increasing. So the question is, why are these three populations increasing? Aren’t polar bear populations around the world in trouble? Was this fellow right? Are Inuit seeing more bears because there are more?

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Someone in the webinar asked to the biologist what the global status of polar bears really was. She explained that these three populations, shown in green, were increasing because of decreased hunting pressure. Bear quotas had been reduced to prevent these populations from declining. So at this point in time, these populations are increasing because fewer bears are being hunted. But by how much will they recover? And will that recovery be sustained? If these bears  experience the same issues of decreasing ice coverage, lack of ice floes for hunting, and therefore, lack of food and places to raise their cubs, reduced hunting pressure may not matter eventually. These increases may  just be a tiny blip on a graph.

The biologists’ comment was that on a global scale, polar bear populations are declining and we should be concerned. Clearly we need more data to understand what is happening to the populations across Russia. Thankfully, a few of our Canadian populations are rebounding from reduced hunting pressures, at least for a while. Sadly, one third of the polar bear populations around the globe are decreasing. This isn’t a rosy outlook for polar bears. We can only hope that actions taken now will ensure the persistence of polar bears throughout their range. But given their precarious status as a species, do we really want someone telling a room full of people who polar bears are doing just fine and that the concern over this species is purely hype? I think not.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

With some populations stable and a few rebounding from hunting pressure, what this means is that it buys us some time. It gives us a chance to effect change while these populations are not in decline. So that means we don’t sit back on our heels or dust our hands, saying ‘no problem here!’ Not at all. It means we get even busier. It means we take advantage of this ‘buffer’ for polar bear populations and act now while there is still a chance to ensure the bear’s continued existence. Those green and blue patches on the map are not a reason to get lazy and do nothing.

I should also note that the biologist  mentioned that human-polar bear encounters were on the increase, as more people visit or live in the arctic and as the climate changes and bears alter their foraging behaviour.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

Image by Bruce Raby, taken in Churchill, Manitoba.

We don’t have all the data we need and we don’t have all the answers. It takes time to get these things. But in the meantime, let’s focus on communicating the facts. Perpetuating mis-information can have negative consequences for species and for the environment. As scientists, we also need to do a better job of communicating the facts to the media and the general public. Let’s get it right, before it’s too late.

My friend and fellow photographer, Bruce Raby, kindly provided the polar bear photographs for this blog post. These images are from Bruce’s trip to Churchill, Manitoba a few years ago. To see more of Bruce’s wonderful photographs, please visit his website at www.brucefoto.com.

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Filed under conservation, Conservation & Environment, nature photography

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