In 1978 three friends and I spent six weeks camped in a valley in Spitsbergen. The possibility that we would meet a polar bear there, even in winter, let alone summer, was far-fetched and we slept soundly in our tents without taking any precautions. We used a nearby hut for shelter from the weather. Last year I enquired about using that hut again and was told that it was no longer habitable: "due to damages made by polar bears".
The west coast of Spitsbergen is now thickly inhabited by bears in summer, as it was not then. In recent years they have killed all the eggs and goslings laid by barnacle geese on offshore islands: breeding success has been near zero. Something similar has been happening on Cooper Island off Alaska, where bears have predated black guillemot nests in recent years. In both cases, scientists are attempting to explain these changes in terms of bears being stranded on land by the loss of ice, but there never was summer sea ice (and rarely winter ice) on the west coast of Spitsbergen.
Nobody with local experience is in any doubt that bear numbers have boomed in the region, thanks to the cessation of hunting in the 1970s, and that this rather than any change in ice cover locally is the chief reason for their more frequent encounters with bears. Yet the Polar Bear Specialist Group calls the trend in the Barents Sea bear sub-population "unknown".
Indeed, Dr. Susan Crockford has uncovered the astonishing fact that this entire population, which the Norwegian government has estimated as containing more than 2,000 animals, is officially listed as "data deficient" on a new PBSG's map, as is true for several Canadian ones that have also been counted.
The same organization claims that eight of the polar bear's sub-populations are decreasing, but read its own website and you will find that this is based almost entirely on projections and mathematical models. The official data table and map says that two of these eight sub-populations are only "thought" or "believed" to be declining – entirely due to hunting; four are in decline only according to computer models, despite some claims by "traditional ecological knowledge" (ie, locals) that they are thriving; one has more than doubled but is now said to be "currently declining" because of crowding, not climate change; and only one showed a real decline. The latest data show that even that decline (in the West Hudson Bay population) has probably recently been reversed.
In other words, the claim that polar bear populations are declining at all, let alone due to climate change, is a manufactured myth, designed for media consumption and with very little basis in fact. That it works all too well is demonstrated by an episode in 2011 involving Sir David Attenborough. In a television series the brilliant television presenter, unwisely diverging from neutral natural history, had asserted that the polar bear is already in trouble. When challenged by Lord Lawson that "the polar bear population has not been falling, but rising", Sir David responded. He was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying "Most [polar bear populations] are in decline and just one is increasing – for a number of factors – one being they have stopped hunting…Lord Lawson is denying what the whole scientific community is accepting and working at and it is extraordinary thing for him to do".
Much as I admire and like both men, I have to say that the evidence suggests that Lord Lawson's account is closer to the truth. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated in 1966 that there were 10,000 polar bears in the world; in 2006, the same source estimated that the population had risen to 20,000-25,000 bears. Had Sir David examined the text on the PBSG's website he would have found that all but one of the eight sub-population declines he cited were in fact based on "beliefs" or future projections. As demonstrated by another recent mistake in another television series, this time an exaggerated claim for temperature change in Africa, Sir David is not being well served by his BBC researchers these days.
Zac Unger documents in his recent book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, how polar bear "decline" is now a large and lucrative industry and in places like Churchill, Manitoba, organisations like Polar Bears International cynically use the imagined plight of the bears to raise money, and push propaganda at young people about changing their lifestyles and those of their parents.
"We're empowered to teach these kids how to make a difference. It's an enormous responsibility. Saving the polar bear is in their hands," an activist explains to Unger, having flown school children by helicopter to a bear-proof camp so they can emote by video-conference to schools across America. As Attenborough once said: "All these big issues need a mascot and that's what the polar bear is".
Yet as Unger discovered and Susan Crockford confirms, increasingly the local people in places like Churchill look on the carnival of tourists, journalists and scientists with bemusement, knowing full well that even there – in one of the most southerly polar bear populations of all – the evidence of a decline in numbers, or of the health of the bears, is threadbare or non-existent. How much more threadbare that evidence is farther north, where the bears' greatest problem is usually too much ice and therefore too few seals, is poorly known. The ideal habitat for polar bears is first-year ice that lasts well into summer, when they feed on fat young seals.
The fact that this ice thins or breaks up enough to allow seals to feed during the autumn keeps the seal population healthy. Four to five months of ice-free fasting in early autumn is not exceptional for polar bears and two to three months is quite normal. The recent trend in most of the Arctic – no change in winter ice extent but a decline in late summer ice extent – has been towards exactly this ideal combination.
Many scientists have grown frustrated with the domination of the polar bear story by dogmatic propagandists and have begun to speak out. Susan Crockford is one of them: a zoologist who is independent of the alarm industry and therefore free to make up her own mind. In this valuable paper, she has done a fine job of documenting the actual facts of the case as far as they are known.