Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The ‘bear facts’: Wente versus Wente (and reality) on polar bear numbers

If you believe Margaret Wente, polar bears are not only thriving in Canada, their numbers have almost doubled since she wrote about their amazing blueberry-fuelled comeback a few years ago.
Today she writes: “There are about 25,000 polar bears across Canada’s Arctic, according to Mr. Gissing”.
But in an article on May 4, 2006 describing the abundant fat, happy bears who “adore blueberries” and are “so full of (them) they waddle” about, Wente nevertheless quoted the current accepted scientific data on their numbers, writing: world polar bear population is estimated at between 22,000 and 24,000, of which two-thirds are in Canada”.
Here she's closer; sixty percent of the world's polar bears live in Canada. Had she consulted the facts, (or even her earlier article), Wente would know that there are about 13,800 polar bears in Canada - a very far cry from 25,000, her figure today.
So which number would Ms. Wente and Globe and Mail like us to believe?
Wente cites Mr. Gissing, a wildlife employee with the Nunuvut government, who makes the astonishing claim of 25,000 polar bears in the Canadian arctic (perhaps in error – inserting a high global estimate for Canada’s population). At any rate, researchers strongly disagree, as this Postmedia article makes clear:
“University of Alberta scientists Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher say the population is neither as ‘abundant’ nor as ‘healthy’ as a Nunavut Inuit organization claimed last week when it used the preliminary results of a recent survey to justify an increase in the annual harvest
…polar bears of western Hudson Bay might be producing only 20-50 per cent as many cubs as they did 30 years ago when the bears had a month or more time to hunt seals on the sea ice.
…Now that global warming is forcing the bears to spend more time on land where there is virtually no food, females are on average 30 to 40 kilograms lighter than they were in the early 1980s and producing far fewer cubs... Those cubs that are born are now less likely than they were in the past to live beyond two years, the age at which they became independent adults”.
“Stirling says he has the greatest respect for Inuit traditional knowledge and observations”. But he is concerned with “a point of view that appears to be influenced largely by anecdotal evidence of more bears coming into the communities and hunting camps… not supported by scientific data on the size, survival rates, and reproductive success of the population.”
He adds: “Canada’s management has drifted from a precautionary sustainable approach that worked well for the last 40 years to one seeking maximum harvest levels with fewer safeguards”.
CBC reports that “Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife with the Government of Nunavut, said the new numbers vindicate the Nunavut government's recent decision to increase the area’s bear hunting quota”.
And from the Globe and Mail: Population figures are used to calculate quotas for hunting, a lucrative industry for many northern communities. Hunting polar bears is highly regulated but Inuit communities can sell their quota to sport hunters, who must hunt with Inuit guides. A polar-bear hunting trip can cost up to $50,000. Demand for polar-bear fur is also soaring in places like China and Russia and prices for some pelts have doubled in the past couple of years, reaching as high as $15,000”.
Maybe the 10,000 or so polar bear extras are like Ms. Wente’s 'Occupy' protester. Or perhaps the incredible number cited by Mr. Gissing and Ms. Wente is intended to increase the hunting quota, which, ironically, Wente credits in her 2006 article for some of the earlier population gains: “The polar bear population has rebounded since the early 1990s, when -- thanks to the environmental movement -- tight new restrictions were imposed on hunting”.
As for Wente’s suggestion that we focus on the people of Nunuvut, by all means. But it’s worth observing that aside from her disparaging remarks about how their "neolithic culture cannot possibly give them a future", and her defense of the term “savages”, it’s difficult to find an article she’s written about Innuit or First Nations peoples - at least one expressing concern or proposing solutions.

Update, January 22, 2013:

I don’t know when The Globe and Mail finally issued a correction about the number of polar bears in Canada, but someone pointed it out recently.  Including the major plagiarism kerfuffle, that brings to about 8 the growing tally of Margaret Wente corrections or Editor’s notes obtained by this little blog.