Magic Number: A sketchy "fact"
about polar bears
keeps going ...
and going ... and going
By PETER DYKSTRA
When Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced the
listing of the polar bear as a threatened species in May, the
political trench warfare over global warming flared up anew.
Environmental groups professed surprise that a reluctant
Bush Administration acted at all. Global warming deniers said the
decision was ludicrous. They cited a polar bear population — a
five-fold increase since the 1970s, a doubling since the 1950s, a
quadrupling since the 1960s.
After wading through about thirty such references from readers
of our CNN blog and hearing them from multiple radio and
TV pundits, I got to thinking: Are any of these numbers true?
And where do they come from? I embarked on a global quest,
traveling by phone, email and Google, to find the truth.
My first stop was Bjorn Lomborg's 2007 book, Cool It:
The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming."
Lomborg, the Danish economist whose work provides a torrent of
talking points for Conservative pundits, says there were "probably
5,000" polar bears in the 1960's.
The book's footnotes cryptically attribute the Number to
Lomborg confirmed for me that the "Krauss" in question is
Clifford Krauss, a reporter for The New York Times, who wrote
on May 27, 2006, about the conflict between polar bear protectors
and trophy hunters: "Other experts see a healthier population.
They note that there are more than 20,000 polar bears roaming the
Arctic, compared to as few as 5,000 40 years ago."
Krauss, now a Houston-based correspondent for The Times,
told me he couldn't recall the source of the 5,000 number, but said
that he understood the number to be "widely accepted." Lomborg
also emailed me a reference for another, different figure he said
he'd discovered after the book's publication: A report from the
Soviet Ministry of Agriculture's S.M. Uspensky, who surveyed
nesting sites on a portion of Russian turf and extrapolated an
Arctic-wide population of 5,000 to 8,000 in 1965 (See page 11 of the Proceedings of
the First International Scientific Meeting on the Polar Bear in Fairbanks, AK.)
(Let us pause for a moment of irony: Critics of
the polar bear decision, predominantly political
Conservatives, are apparently placing their chips
on a fact that traces its lineage back to two info
sources that rarely make the conservative bibliography:
The New York Times and the Union
of Soviet Socialist Republics.)
Here's a quick tour of a few other reports of
polar bear prosperity:
Female polar bear jumps on broken ice near Svalbard Island.
Photo courtesy ERELEND KVALSVIK, iSTOCKPHOTO.
In a May 20 Los Angeles Times opinion piece, Jonah
Goldberg took a whack at what he sees as quasi-religious
overtones to conservation. Part of his backup? "Never mind that
polar bears are in fact thriving — their numbers have quadrupled
in the last 50 years."
James Taylor of the Heartland Institute cited a London
Daily Telegraph article that "confirmed the ongoing polar bear
population explosion" in a Sept 11, 2007, blog.
But the March 9, 2007, story that Taylor referenced actually
makes no mention of global bear populations — quoting one
scientist as observing strong growth in one local population, in
Davis Strait; and another scientist reporting global warming-related
declines in the local population in Hudson's Bay.
Taylor adds a new number into the mix from a March
26, 2008, posting at the Heartland site: "The global polar bear
population has doubled since 1970, despite legal polar bear hunting."
A May 12 New York Post op-ed piece by S.T. Karnick
introduces still another number — this time with a source:
"The world polar-bear population is at a modern high — and
growing. Mitch Taylor, a polar-bear biologist with Canada's Federal
Provincial Polar Bear Technical Committee, notes that the
bears now number about 24,000 — up about 40 percent from
1974, when fears arose about the bear's ability to survive overhunting by Canadian Eskimos and aboriginals."
From James Delingpole, a Times of London blogger, similar
numbers, but different dates. And no source. "In 1950, let us not forget,
there were about 5,000 polar bears. Now there are 25,000."
When we get to the retail level, the Arctic Urban Myth turns
truly funky. We blogged about the polar bear ruling on CNN's
SciTechBlog, and about 30 of the 350 responses cited some
variation of the number. Here are some examples:
"Common Sense: Who are we kidding. There were 5,000
bears in 1970 and now there are 26,000. Most populations are
growing. This is obvious global warming politics."
"Jay Merr: The global population of polar bears is 22,000,
about double what it was just four decades ago. The environmentalists
have taken control of the government and global warming
is the scam of the century."
"Gary: There are 5 times more polar bears now, than there
was in 1960. Where is the problem?"
"PJ: Fact: the polar bear population is larger than in the
1970s up from 12,000 or less in 1960s to 25,000 today; might as
well call white Americans 'threatened' their population is going
"PJ: They don't need protection at all, their population has
increased more since the 1970s than the human population of any
country on earth!"
But polar bear researchers say those old estimates were no
better than guesses.
Polar bears near Svalbard Island.
Photo courtesy PAULINE MILLS, iSTOCKPHOTO.
Steven Amstrup, who led the USGS research on the current
status of polar bears, emailed me from the field: "How many
bears were around then, we don't really know because the only
studies of bears at that time were in their very early stages —
people were just beginning to figure out how we might study
animals scattered over the whole Arctic in difficult logistical situations.
Some estimated that world population might have been as
small as 5000 bears, but this was nothing more than a WAG. The
scientific ability to estimate the sizes of polar bear populations has
increased dramatically in recent years."
(Editor's note: "WAG" is scientific jargon for "Wild-Ass
Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta added, "I have
seen the figure of 5,000 in the 1960/70s but it is impossible to
give it any scientific credibility. No estimation of any population
was attempted until the early 1970s and even then, this was done
very crudely for perhaps 10% of the global population and the
estimates were highly questionable."
Thor Larsen of Norway's University of Life Sciences was
actively involved in bear research back then. He recalls "Most
data on numbers from the late 1960s and early 1970s were
indeed anecdotal, simply because proper research was lacking. As
far as I can remember, we did stick to a world-wide 'guestimate'
of 20-25,000 bears in these years."
Another veteran bear researcher, Ian Stirling, emailed me,
"Any number given as an estimate of the total population at that
time would simply have been a guess and, in all likelihood, 5,000
was almost certainly much too low."
These and other scientists agree that polar bear populations
have, in all likelihood, increased in the past several decades, but
not five-fold, and for reasons that have nothing to do with global
warming. The Soviets, despite their horrendous environmental
legacy on many issues, banned most polar bear hunting in 1956.
Canada and the U.S. followed suit in the early 1970s — with
limited exceptions for some native hunting, and permitted, high-priced
trophy hunts. And a curtailment of some commercial
seal hunting has sparked a seal population explosion — angering
fishermen, but providing populations in eastern Canada and
Greenland with plenty of polar bear chow, leading in turn to
localized polar bear population growth in spite of the ice decline.
The scientists also caution that we still don't have a firm
count on these mobile, remote, supremely camouflaged beasts.
All this uncertainty over the numbers — past and present
— even gave some conservative bloggers pause.
Human Events editor Terry Jeffrey acknowledged the
absolute uncertainty of polar bear numbers in a May 21 blog.
Even so, isn't that reason to do nothing? he asked. "Before
anybody tries to change the world to save polar bears ...
somebody should figure out how many polar bears there are."
I hope this thoroughly clears things up.
Peter Dykstra is executive producer for science, tech, weather
**Excerpt from the
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