April 30, 2013 _ A Conservative MP has been peddling what researchers describe as “bogus” information on polar bears and citing U.S. climate skeptics as experts on the iconic creatures.
In a letter that shocked scientists, Yukon MP Ryan Leef said: “The global polar bear population has quadrupled over the last 40 years.”
The letter, which Leef wrote to a constituent in February, said many “pessimistic studies” about the bears have been judged “unscientific and inconsequential to decision makers” by U.S. researchers. The researchers he refers to are well-known climate skeptics.
Ian Stirling, a world authority on the bears at the University of Alberta, said he was shocked by Leef’s letter.
“I am absolutely appalled that a Canadian MP would circulate this kind of stuff to a constituent asking in good faith about the conservation of polar bears in Canada,” said Stirling.
Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, a conservation group, was also taken aback. He said Leef’s claim that the population has quadrupled was “completely bogus.”
There is so little data available on how many bears were prowling the Arctic in the 1960s and 70s that it is impossible to know how much the population has changed, said Amstrup, who studied Alaska’s polar bears for 30 years.
But an international polar bear specialist group, which includes Amstrup and Stirling, estimates that eight of the 19 sub-populations of the bears around the Arctic are now in decline.
The bears’ habitat is shrinking along with the Arctic sea ice as the climate changes, posing a well-recognized and ominous threat to the bears, they said.
“Polar bears are in jeopardy,” said Amstrup. “To suggest they are ‘just fine’ is like living on another planet.”
Leef wrote the Feb. 27 letter to constituent Heather Cobban, who teaches high school science in Watson Lake, southeastern Yukon. She had appealed to Leef and the federal government to take steps to better protect polar bears.
Cobban was so surprised by Leef’s response she contacted Stirling to see what he made of the letter. She also asked Leef for more details about the U.S. researchers who the MP said had “found significant errors in many of the pessimistic studies that have been invoked during the push to declare polar bears endangered.”
Leef’s office then sent Cobban a 2008 report by Scott Armstrong, a marketing expert at the University of Pennsylvania; Kesten Green, a business and economic forecaster at Monash University in Australia, and astronomer Willie Soon, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“They are professional climate deniers,” Amstrup said of the trio. Seven polar bear and climate experts, including Amstrup and Stirling, published a lengthy rebuttal of the 2008 report, which Leef made no mention of in his letter to Cobban.
“It is amazing to me that anybody could be hanging on to the paper he (Leef) suggested the constituent read,” said Amstrup, who suspects the 2008 report is included in “talking points” circulating among Conservative politicians.
Stirling, who has studied polar bears for over 40 years, is also baffled.
“Why did a Canadian Conservative government MP send out a response from U.S. climate deniers who know next to nothing about polar bears instead of something that involved Environment Canada’s own polar bear scientists,” said Stirling.
Environment Canada said Canada is home to about two-thirds of the 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears believed to be roaming the Arctic. The department lists the bears as a species of “special concern” and said “climate change continues to have a negative impact on polar bears in some portions of their range and remains the most important threat to their long-term range-wide security.”
Cobban, who copied her original letter to Environment Minister Peter Kent, said it’s disturbing Leef chose to bypass Canadian expertise “in favour of a known fringe group, with no credibility or standing among serious polar researchers.”
Leef defended the letter on Monday saying there is “contradictory and different” information available about polar bears.
“When I communicate with my constituents they want access and opportunity to review different perspectives,” he said.
Leef said if he just cites information from Environment Canada, people will say “you’re just spewing out the propaganda of your government.”
His did concede that the bear population may not have quadrupled in the last 40 years, but seemed nonplussed by the concerns about the 2008 study.
Environment Canada and Kent had no comment when asked about Leef’s letter.