This column and the photo above are by Morten Jørgensen, a Danish guide and lecturer who authored the book “Polar Bears On The Edge – Heading For Extinction While Management Fails.”
When I read the recent paper “Fasting season length sets temporal limits for global polar bear persistence” earlier this week, a study that suggests that polar bears might be gone by the year 2100, I was angry and sad. And when I saw how this piece was successfully planted and commented on in mainstream media all over the world, including in icepeople.net, I was further irritated.
But my frustrations were not so much a reaction to the tragedy of the message of the headline, namely the tragedy of the seemingly inevitable demise of the polar bear. My bitterness is directed at the futility of the study itself, at the false prophet nature of the authors, at the betrayal of the polar bear that the study represents.
I would welcome it if one day, all of these clever scientists would spend their precious time and their publicly collected moneys on something which was real and relevant, and which would in even the slightest way serve the polar bear in its fight for survival. But alas, they keep doing the same thing over and over, making the same two basic but fatal mistakes again and again:
1) They reduce the reason why the polar bear is in dire straits to being a matter of climate change, and they entirely neglect looking at the unequivocally and singularly most lethal threat to polar bear survival: rampant, poorly managed, unsustainable over-hunting.
2) They keep resetting the clock, whereby they end up repeatedly projecting the issues, the suffering, away from the present and into some obscure future, thus contributing to a downplaying of the urgency of the matter.
By both counts, by keeping the focus entirely on the least solvable problem and neglecting to focus on the most immediately mitigable cause of excess polar bear mortality, and by focusing on a distant future demise rather than the already happening current disaster, the authors and their paper become part of the continuation of the problem.
According to the study, the Svalbard polar bear population is most rapidly accelerating towards doomsday even though Svalbard bears are not hunted. But imagine if the hunting pressure had been calculated in in the models – the fate of many other subpopulations would have come out much worse, causing the fate of the Barents Sea population to look less extreme.
A few years ago, it was stated that up to 2/3 of all polar bears might be gone by mid-century. Now, it is 3/3 by end of century. And still the same scientists just keep pushing the same agenda – that the only serious reason they are disappearing is global warming. This latest study further reveals that ever more convoluted and hyper-theoretical statistical computer modelling is required to make these absurd, useless and by default counterproductive predictions. This paper is the result of playing around in a virtual reality of numbers, statistics, modelling and guessing. Among the ludicrous output claims of these number games is that the Barents Sea subpopulation is not currently suffering a negative reproductive impact from climate change, or that the survival rate of adult females with cubs is -0.8 percent per day if she is 40 percent overweight relative to a more-or-less arbitrary threshold and fasts for 13 months out of a year!
But in the real world, there is a real polar bear reality in real time, today. It is a reality of increasing pressure due to a lethal cocktail of two main ingredients: severe habitat deterioration and massive hunting pressure. The challenges for the species during a warming period with additional anthropogenic threats such as human habitation, traffic, industry, pollution, ocean depletion, etc. are so massive that it needs all the refuge, peace and support it can get. But when all those threat factors are combined, as they are today, with the conscious, systematic, mostly government-sanctioned and legalized hunting of some 900 bears every year, the chances of species survival are indeed very slim.
For these scientists to put out a paper like they have now, stipulating for instance that “with high greenhouse gas emissions, steeply declining reproduction and survival will jeopardize the persistence of all but a few high-Arctic subpopulations by 2100,” or this equally astonishing statement: “aggressive greenhouse gas emissions mitigation will be required to save polar bears from extinction, but moderating emissions…would slow progressive extirpation” – without a single word mentioning the impact of the current hunting regime, is a disgrace. It borders on criminal negligence. It demonstrates that science serves the hunting interests, and that the politically hot potato called “special privilege” for the Inuit to keep intensely shooting this endangered species is so taboo that top-notch scientists are willing to skew the image of the reality for the sake of keeping the peace. And incidentally of course, these pseudo-studies contribute also to the scientists being able to keep their careers going without rocking the boat.
Along the way, in order to achieve their goal, in their quest to produce and deliver such politically adjusted “science” as this, the team behind the study perpetrate and strengthen a universe of pre-existing falsehoods in polar bear science. Among them are a seemingly unhesitating reliance on highly uncertain at best and dubious at worst manufactured estimates of sub-population sizes; unknown and possibly exaggerated cub recruitment rates; and underestimated impact of sea-ice melt to date on a variety of subpopulations as well as the global population.
Polar bear reality today includes a population decline by 20-35 percent in the last 40-plus years alone. It also includes the deliberate annual slaughter of 4-5 percent of the world population, with hunting pressure in some areas as high as 7-10 percent, while the recruitment rate could be as low as 2-3 percent. This artificially added mortality is the real reason why polar bear “persistence is jeopardized.”
Yes, polar bears are vanishing, but climate change is so far only a secondary contributing factor. Without the inclusion of those facts, the study is worthless. It is fake news. But even worse, with those omissions the study becomes directly detrimental to the polar bear cause. Because it deflects from the problems. By downplaying the importance of addressing the hunting and considering it in all conservation and management decision making, the study ends up lending passive support to the continuation of the extermination through hunting.
The paper and its conclusion even becomes a double betrayal of the polar bear, because it not only removes the impact of hunting from the explanation why polar bears are disappearing, but it also downplays and underestimates the actual resilience of polar bears in the face of the effects of climate change and global warming. All this really amounts to an environmental crime committed by folks who should know better.
So, in brief: yes, the scientists are right when they proclaim that if we keep doing as we do now, the polar bear will probably be gone in 2100. But they are lying when they decide that it will be due mainly to climate change. In a few generations, it will be known that the actual main cause for the eventual disappearance of the polar bear was that we continued to allow it to be shot in excess during those very decades when the climate-change caused environmental changes spiralled out of control. In the future, it will also be understood that a contributing factor to the extinction was that the scientists who knew better did not have the guts to speak the truth when it really mattered.
In closing, I wish to also mention that there are a few factual errors also in Mark Sabbatini’s write-up. Two deserve a correction here:
• “There are roughly 25,000 polar bears worldwide, according to the most recent counts.” This statement implies that the global polar bear population has been counted, which it has not. The politically motivated and probably exaggerated global estimate of 25,000 is contested. Just like we need to stop the myth that there are 3,000 polar bears in Svalbard, we also need to end the use of bloated global estimates as if they were fact.
• “Svalbard’s population rebounded strongly after hunting was outlawed in 1973, and has managed to remain relatively stable during the past decade or two despite profound changes in climate and sea ice conditions.” There is no evidence of the Svalbard population having rebounded, it is an oft-repeated myth which has no bearing with reality. The “stability” of the Svalbard population during the last 40 years since the end of a massive hunting pressure only demonstrates one thing: That the ambient conditions are extremely detrimental to the recovery of the species. A severely overhunted population, which at the time of protection was being shot out with up to 300 killed/year, would under normal circumstances indeed have rebounded, but the end of the hunting era coinciding with a deterioration of the ice conditions has led to the population only just managing to more or less remain at level – until now. The apparent stability of the Svalbard polar bear population is cause for grave concern (a concern incidentally also arrived at in the paper which triggered this comment).