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Polar Bear Threat on "Ice".. Giving "Chills" To Environmentalist. Puns also deemed healthy
April 5, 2012 8:27 AM   Subscribe

We all know Polar Bears are at risk, right?
"Not so fast!" says a new study completed by the Government of Nunavut on the populations on the Western Coast of Hudson Bay. The populations are actually increasing in number.

This is something that has long been argued by Inuit who live in the area. (video) Inuit are chaulking this up as a win for Inuit Traditional Knowledge. The numbers are said to be confounding doomsayers.

Facts on this topic for discussion:

1.) Canada recently joined most of the rest of the world in listing Polar Bears as a species of special concern, which essentially means a management plan must be developed.

2.) The polar bear is of economic and, most importantly cultural value to the Inuit of Nunavut. The hunt is <>extensively managed in Nunavut.

3.) The WWF has warned of boycotts, and says that it is taking the new polar bear numbers with a grain of salt.

4.) A recent MacCleans article on the topic We're Shooting Polar Bears?. (Release pre-recent Nunavut findings). Provides insight into mainstream Canadian media portrayl of Polar Bear populations.


The question that really got me posting this article in first place, aside from a general information to MeFi readers is: How do you view aboriginal "traditional knowledge" claims when they are made? Does this change your view? Most importantly:

What role does traditional knowledge play in such a science heavy world?
posted by dogbusonline (73 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Apologies in advance for spelling on chalking, portrayl MacLeans. Up all night with a non-sleeping baby. Hopefully that can be edited and the point is not lost in the poor spelling. :)
posted by dogbusonline at 8:30 AM on April 5, 2012


Is this really about an issue of traditional knowledge versus science? It sounds like the Inuit thought that polar bear populations were increasing based on their personal observations rather than some piece of folk wisdom or the like. The fact that the people doing the observing are non-white doesn't make it "traditional knowledge"; it's still just tracking the number of polar bears you encounter.

The real take away from this is: people who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis have a good idea of the number of polar bears, which makes sense.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:34 AM on April 5, 2012 [34 favorites]


Polar Bears are at risk

No no no, polar bears aren't AT risk, polar bears are A risk, to EVERYONE. They are actively trying to eat us all right now. Polar bears are a menace.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:34 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I love how 1000 individuals is a "thriving" population.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:45 AM on April 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


I would like to see their observations better explained somewhere. By definition, a local increase in population can be from higher birth rates or from immigration. "Traditional knowledge" or not, without a clear definition of the population and study areas that we're talking about, and the age distribution within the population, it's hard to know if they are seeing a healthy population increase due to higher birth rates, or just shifts in population from one area to another.

My concerns are important for polar bears, in particular, because one prediction is that the population will slowly shift southwards as the polar ice melts, until the species merges with the grizzly to form the so-called grolar bear species.

If this group is observing a local population increase because bears from are migrating inland from thinning polar ice, that completely supports the theory that global climate change is affecting the bears; it just doesn't support the over-simplified theory that "global warming is going to kill off the polar bears." Ecology as a science rarely makes good sound bites.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:45 AM on April 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


No no no, polar bears aren't AT risk, polar bears are A risk, to EVERYONE. They are actively trying to eat us all right now. Polar bears are a menace.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl


I sense the possibility of bias in this comment...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:47 AM on April 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


What role does traditional knowledge play in such a science heavy world?

It can provide indications, but TK can't be taken as authoritative, not without further checks.

Fundamentally, TK is an opinion. It may be well founded, it may be not. It may be reflective of a bias or not.

One thing the scientific process does bring is a lot of machinery to remove observer bias and double-check for confounding factors. TK can be great for forming hypotheses to test, but it isn't a substitute for doing the hard work.
posted by bonehead at 8:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


What role does traditional knowledge play in such a science heavy world?

When there are just 1,000 of them left, a bit of a reality check should be in order. If not, the point will be moot as there will be no bears to wax poetic about and their importance in traditional culture.

How about we give the bears a decade respite from metal objects being shoved in their heads? I am sure human culture will survive in the meantime. For all this talk about being one with nature, it sure seems like the effort is to zero out this particular part of it.
posted by lampshade at 8:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pfft, grolar bear! Everyone knows the proper term is pizzly bear.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:53 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


What it they see the same handful of bears a few hundred times?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:54 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


You want a coke? [NSFW]
posted by dobie at 8:55 AM on April 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm just spit balling here, but if polar bears are coming from more Northern regions (like Baffin Bay) where the ice isn't filling in as readily, wouldn't the count in lower regions go up as a result?

I'm by no means a scientist of this nature, but a localized area's population doesn't equate an entire species' viability.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 8:55 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


My concerns are important for polar bears, in particular, because one prediction is that the population will slowly shift southwards as the polar ice melts, until the species merges with the grizzly to form the so-called grolar bear species.

So, in addition to the grolar bear actually being a real thing, they are BIGGER than polar bears and apparently just as aggressive? Humanity is doomed.
posted by asnider at 8:56 AM on April 5, 2012


The real take away from this is: people who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis have a good idea of the number of polar bears, which makes sense.

People who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis have reason to fudge numbers in such a way as to let them kill polar bears.
posted by parliboy at 8:59 AM on April 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


Polar bear numbers are probably increasing in one area of the Arctic as total numbers decline all over.

This is no joke, by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:00 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


A polar bear broke into my shed yesterday. There was no polar bear in my shed the day before. Therefore the population of polar bears* is increasing.

*In my shed
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:00 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


SciAm
PNAS
posted by hank at 9:02 AM on April 5, 2012


There's significant interest in maintaining a Native polar bear hunt, btw. No one is a neutral actor here.
posted by bonehead at 9:03 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


When there are just 1,000 of them left

...in the Western Hudson Bay area. Wikipedia has the number as 20,000-25,000. KokuRyu may be right about numbers declining elsewhere though, I'm not sure.
posted by Hoopo at 9:11 AM on April 5, 2012


What role does traditional knowledge play in such a science heavy world?

Frankly, I'm more worried about what seems to be the increasingly science-light opinions expressed by people either in power or trying to get into power, or who influence large flocks* of magic-believers.


* "They're flocking this way!"

posted by Celsius1414 at 9:12 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


What role does traditional knowledge play in such a science heavy world?

I'm with stupid bonehead on this one. Traditional knowledge can be a useful jumping-off point, but it's not the same as scientific research.

I live on an island and study wildlife, and one of the common questions I get from folks who grew up here is "What is -description of animal-? We never used to see that." It usually is an invasive species, so I think traditional knowledge can be pretty good for tips like that. On the other hand, a lot of stuff is straight-up myth (the raccoons/monkeys/etc escaped from the zoo during hurricane Luis) or unreliable (species x seems more common now, especially after I moved to a house right next to its preferred habitat, etc.).
posted by snofoam at 9:14 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I should add that local knowledge is certainly better than nothing when it comes to trying to understand what things were like before anything was documented in a scientific way.
posted by snofoam at 9:15 AM on April 5, 2012


1998 -- 1194 animals
2004 -- 935 animals
2011 -- 1,000 animals

See? Just because the population is 84% of what it was in 1998, that's a bit higher than what it'd previously fallen to. They're fine! No decline to worry about.
posted by salvia at 9:18 AM on April 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


I like polar bears, actually I like most apex animals... actually I like most animals(with the possible exception of humans-as-a-species) even the few that I end up eating, I wish I could be more accepting of the claim that polar bear numbers are on the rise.

But, it will take more than anecdotal evidence from a group who has a vested economic interest in not seeing a plan of action put in place that would limit their hunting of said bears.

I have a certain amount of respect for aboriginal cultures, but and this is a big but, there is very little to suggest they are less mean, corrupt, self serving, resource consuming or more "noble" than any other given culture.

Kind of reminds me of the fishermen around Newfoundland protesting loudly that the Cod population was doing just fine thankyouverymuch we should know... only you know the collapse of the cod fisheries in the early 1990's.

Give me something more than the increase in a specific area, which can be attributed to any number of external factors (migration, Churchill's legendary landfill polar bears providing substance). Want to know if Polar Bear numbers are increasing? Do a systemic study, not a special subset.

get back to me when the evidence is better and I'll open the first bottle of champagne.
posted by edgeways at 9:20 AM on April 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


So... Nunavut is having none of it?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:24 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


“The western science was predicting the polar bear in the Western Hudson Bay was declining, but again, Inuit proved them they were wrong."

I've had it up to here with western science. T.V. off!
posted by ShutterBun at 9:32 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The real take away from this is: people who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis have a good idea of the number of polar bears, which makes sense.

Exactly this sort of thinking lead to the collapse of almost every commercial fish species. We've seen this pattern happen time and again, in living memory yet. "Common sense" has thoroughly proven that it can't be trusted when making conservation decisions.
posted by bonehead at 9:35 AM on April 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


This looks like a reasonably conclusive result showing that population numbers are in fact stable, at least in Nunavut. So, yay!
bonehead:
"It can provide indications, but TK can't be taken as authoritative, not without further checks.

Fundamentally, TK is an opinion. It may be well founded, it may be not. It may be reflective of a bias or not.

One thing the scientific process does bring is a lot of machinery to remove observer bias and double-check for confounding factors. TK can be great for forming hypotheses to test, but it isn't a substitute for doing the hard work.
"
What a bullshit and borderline racist thing to say. Claims that are made based on field surveys informed by the discipline of polar bear hunting are not somehow inherently less valid than claims based on field surveys informed by ecological disciplines. Science is ultimately a verb, not a noun, it is a thing one does, rather than a thing one is. All disciplines with claims to scientific authority need to back up those claims positive results from other disciplines, replicated conclusions, and good documentation. Science, in its most essential and meaningful sense, is not something done by white people from universities, but a state of mind and a set of actions.

Assuming that the conclusions offered were honestly given, looking at the data that was available previous to the aerial survey that validated the Traditional Knowledge (PDF), the result shouldn't be that surprising. In comparing the data (Aars et al. 2006) is based on to the survey results I linked to, the conclusions that the TK result is based on were supported by roughly equivalent methodologies and a vastly larger sample size.
edgeways: "But, it will take more than anecdotal evidence from a group who has a vested economic interest in not seeing a plan of action put in place that would limit their hunting of said bears."
You might have missed it, but in the FPP there was a aerial survey, which is more likely to produce accurate numbers than previously used methodologies, that confirmed what the locals already knew. So yes, there is more.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:41 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


From the 'confounding doomsayers' link:
Andrew Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta who has been studying polar-bear populations for years. Prof. Derocher said the 1,013 figure is derived from a range of 717 bears to 1,430. “It’s premature to draw many conclusions,” he said, adding that there were no comparative figures and the upper end of the range, 1,430, was highly unlikely.

Prof. Derocher also said some details in the survey pointed to a bear population in trouble. For example, the survey identified 50 cubs, which are usually less than 10 months old, and 22 yearlings, roughly 22 months old. That’s nearly one-third the number required for a healthy population, he said. “This is a clear indication that this population is not sustaining itself in any way, shape, or form.”
posted by stbalbach at 9:44 AM on April 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


In case anyone is wondering if these hunting restrictions would end a deeply-rooted cultural practice, the answer seems to be "no," according to the FPP link that says that the hunt is of economic value to the Nunavut. It emphasizes that the practice is fairly recent and government-initiated (pdf): "Polar bear trophy hunting is less deeply rooted in Canada than many people realize. It took active governmental effort in the early 1980s for trophy hunting to establish a toehold in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Many Inuit communities were slow to embrace trophy hunting with some communities resisting entirely. A far greater share of communities have either never hosted a polar bear trophy hunt or have hosted them sporadically than have hosted them on an annual basis."

That doesn't mean the hunting is not economically important to a group of people who may not have many economic opportunities.
posted by salvia at 9:45 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Exactly this sort of thinking lead to the collapse of almost every commercial fish species. We've seen this pattern happen time and again, in living memory yet. "Common sense" has thoroughly proven that it can't be trusted when making conservation decisions.

That part of my comment was like 85% a joke, but it's worth pointing out that while the observations of Inuits in Nunavut don't speak to worldwide populations of polar bears, it seems like their observations were "right" for the area in which they were able to observe. More data is necessary to describe what is going on to worldwide polar bear populations, but for Nunavut it seems like these observations might be trustworthy.

I'd also point out that we're not talking about common sense, we're talking about people's reporting of their observations; it's not quite science, but it's a lot like science.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:45 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not at all bullshit, and certainly not racist. Traditional knowledge is, ultimately, anecdotal. It has nothing to do with the race of the people making the observations. If the locals went out and conducted a survey, it would be just as valid as any other scientific survey. If they are sawing "it seems like there have been more bears about" then what bonehead said ("It can provide indications, but TK can't be taken as authoritative") is exactly right.
posted by Nothing at 9:47 AM on April 5, 2012


I love how 1000 individuals is a "thriving" population.

As they are a top-level predator, 1000 individuals around a bay is pretty much the definition of a thriving population.

At any rate, both sides of this have gotten to be so... fundamentalist that I have totally written off the entire "Nature" thing lasting past my lifetime.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:49 AM on April 5, 2012


from post: “We all know Polar Bears are at risk, right? 'Not so fast!' says a new study completed by the Government of Nunavut on the populations on the Western Coast of Hudson Bay. The populations are actually increasing in number.”

Just a small quibble: these things are not contradictory as you're implying. The fact that a population is increasing in number emphatically does not mean the population is not at risk. I really don't think a measly 1,000 bears is enough to state flatly that the population is 'not at risk,' no matter whether the population is falling or rising.
posted by koeselitz at 9:49 AM on April 5, 2012


I went to a climate change conference in Banff, Canada, in 2009. There was a delegate there from the Nunavut government. He was a climate change denier. I found it baffling, and perhaps it is anecdotal, but perhaps not.
posted by oneironaut at 9:52 AM on April 5, 2012


Also, it seems like this story has next to nothing to do with "traditional knowledge."
posted by koeselitz at 9:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was a recent report on the CBC about the decline of polar bears. In it, the point was made that they are sea mammals; I had not previously thought of them as such. The reason for concern over their existence is that polar ice is melting at a frightening rate, something which should be of great concern to us all. No polar ice - no polar bears. And more water everywhere else.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:54 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


You might have missed it, but in the FPP there was a aerial survey, which is more likely to produce accurate numbers than previously used methodologies, that confirmed what the locals already knew. So yes, there is more.

Fair enough, but then looking at the linked article you provided, right there int he abstract it lists some of the objections and possible concerns people have already brought up:


A north-south gradient was identified, with more polar bears and bears signs being encountered in the north-western part of Baffin Bay. The reason for increased Inuit sightings of bears and bear signs when scientific studies indicate a declining population in Baffin Bay is unknown. Possible explanations for this phenomenon include 1. Immigration from an abundant adjacent population (Lancaster Sound) has increased numbers in the northern
area, 2. Scientific studies underestimated the population, and 3. Climate change induced
changes in bear have increased densities along the coast. This question cannot be
resolved with the information available at present.


Indeed the article does not deal with all of Nunavut, only the NW part of Baffin Bay, and says the increase is impossible to attribute to a cause at this time. So you may as well say "All the polar bears from Nunavut decided to take a spring break in NW Baffin Bay" as saying "Polar Bear numbers are on the rise.. or stable.. or..." There is nothing in the article to suggest polar bear numbers across the arctic (or even Nunavut) are in less danger than they where before the article. Just happens to be more bears in a particular area. If I burn down the forest next to my house and kill 90% off all the deer and the remainder decide to hang out in my back yard I can now say "hey look! the deer population is great I see more deer than ever nowadays!"?
posted by edgeways at 9:57 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Claims that are made based on field surveys informed by the discipline of polar bear hunting are not somehow inherently less valid than claims based on field surveys informed by ecological disciplines.

Sure they are, as they don't have the same levels of controls on the observations. That traditional knowledge survey (PDF, linked as "argued" in the post") is pretty typical of a TK collection. There's stats on the the responses, but all that really tells you is what the hunters think, it doesn't directly tell you what the bear populations are. You need to do those aerial and field observations to do a proper population count. You can't do that by hearsay.

There are strong parallels here with the depletion of the fisheries of Newfoundland and the surveys of fishermen in the 1980s and 1990s. Following pressures from those local respondents contributed to the over-fishing and subsequent collapse of the cod stocks.

This is not really a Native problem, it's that the hunters may not have reliable samplings of areas, equal coverages, for example. Did they go out at certain times? Do their responses reflect the whole of the population's area? It's really hard to tell from a TK survey. As I say, it's a useful starting point, but TK, alone, cannot be a sound basis for good conservation biology.
posted by bonehead at 9:57 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


[...] borderline racist thing to say.

This is a silly and wholly baseless attack.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


This is what a polar bear hunt looks like. I'm uneasy about this, but I don't know if I can condemn it. The video is taken from Igloolik Isuma Productions, an Inuit film company that made the excellent Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. The local anger at the quotas comes through in the video I posted.
posted by awenner at 10:12 AM on April 5, 2012


To me, it seems like a stretch to claim that the Inuit "knew" the population trend of the polar bears. If their hypothesis was correct this time, it doesn't mean that more rigorous data collection is unnecessary. And the articles that jump on this data point to make assumptions about the state of polar bears in general are way out of line.

I also don't understand the accusation of racism. I don't see how things would be any different if the scenario involved third-generation ranchers in Montana and wolf populations.
posted by snofoam at 10:14 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bulgaroktonos: The real take away from this is: people who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis have a good idea of the number of polar bears, which makes sense.

Or, the real take-away might be: people who might get eaten by polar bears on a regular basis will believe there are more polar bears, when environmental pressures force them to forage closer to those people, making sightings more frequent.

Possibility: the polar bear populations are increasing.
Threat if this possibility is ignored: a few years when the Inuit miss their hunts.

Possibility: the polar bear populations are decreasing.
Threat if this possibility is ignored: extinction.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:26 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Population went up because Palin was busy.
posted by stormpooper at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Traditional knowledge - seems to me from the few cases I've had detailed knowledge of that much of it is imagined and made up by the current generation, as many native groups (not just in Canada) do not have a long written history. Yes, there is there knowledge of where and how to use resources and organize their society, but the idea that conservation is built in seems to be more recent romanticism than reality. It can be a bit ridiculous and self-congratulatory at times. There are native groups partnering with non-native groups attempting to develop working conservation systems. Well, I hope they all succeed.
posted by Listener at 10:27 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


There was a delegate there from the Nunavut government. He was a climate change denier. I found it baffling, and perhaps it is anecdotal, but perhaps not.
posted by oneironaut at 10:52 AM on April 5 [+] [!]


My admittedly limited experience with people from the North suggests that he was definitely an outlier.
posted by asnider at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2012


I don't think "doomsayers" are going to be relieved by this news. Not only does the survey state that the polar bear population in this area is skewed older than it should be, but the paper doesn't answer the question why sightings have gone up. For some years people have said that increased sightings are due to abnormal foraging behavior, and if such a thing is true, the longrun outcome for the population there is poor.

Oh, and if you want borderline racist, try this:

"We are quite happy,” said James Eetoolook, vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik. “The western science was predicting the polar bear in the Western Hudson Bay was declining, but again, Inuit proved them they were wrong."
posted by Jehan at 10:47 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


snofoam: "I also don't understand the accusation of racism. I don't see how things would be any different if the scenario involved third-generation ranchers in Montana and wolf populations."

Where there is an absence of genuinely good quality data it has been quite natural to trust the traditional knowledge of ranchers in order to help judge the health of wolf populations. That third-generation ranchers in Montana tend to have strong ideas about whether there should be healthy populations of wolves is largely immaterial to the value of their experience.

The crash of the North Atlantic cod fisheries is indeed a dramatic example of how traditional knowledge can fail to predict disaster, but it is also a reasonably dramatic exception to the rule. In the Chesapeake Bay for example crabbers and oystermen have been pretty good at telling legislatures what will happen when contemporary trends continue for centuries.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:54 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was just saying that race is immaterial in this discussion. Whether a white rancher or Inuit hunter, scientists wouldn't assume that their observations are statistically valid (but they would also be well advised to find out what the locals actually perceive).
posted by snofoam at 11:11 AM on April 5, 2012


TK can be useful, but it's not science. To start basing conservation strategies on opinions is a recipe for disaster.

Basically, any smart researcher will ask people in the area of concern what they've noticed and take that into consideration, but those conversations are a starting point, not an end point.
posted by Phreesh at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2012


So, this increase in population coincides with an seven-year period when hunting quotas were reduced, you say?

Quotas fell from 56 to eight per year. And across seven years, the population increased by 65 bears.
posted by salvia at 11:31 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Claims that are made based on field surveys informed by the discipline of polar bear hunting are not somehow inherently less valid than claims based on field surveys informed by ecological disciplines.

Claims based on the reportage of people with a vested interest in continuing to hunt the bears without restriction are INCREDIBLY less valid than objective observation from a third party.

Where there is an absence of genuinely good quality data it has been quite natural to trust the traditional knowledge of ranchers in order to help judge the health of wolf populations.

And that's how several and many species of wolves ended up on the endangered species list, because the ranchers wanted to kill them. I'm sure the folks hunting dodos were sure that there were tons of the things around, all the way up until there weren't.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


We frequently use TK for model validation as well. It's important, but it should not be the model.
posted by bonehead at 11:37 AM on April 5, 2012


The crash of the North Atlantic cod fisheries is indeed a dramatic example of how traditional knowledge can fail to predict disaster, but it is also a reasonably dramatic exception to the rule.

The collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery had much more to do with drastic errors in "scientific" fishery management and with gigantic industrial-scale trawlers from the other side of the world scooping up the fish at far faster rates than they ever were before. Dean Bavington at Memorial University of Newfoundland has done excellent work on this (check out his Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse as well as episode 13 of the CBC series "How To Think About Science"). Bavington makes a strong case that, contrary to the Hardinesque Tragedy of the Commons-style "traditional knowledge/management is inferior to SCIENCE!" argument most posters here seem to be advocating, it was SCIENCE! and rationalized management structures that managed the cod into near-extinction, while many old-time Newfoundlanders (including some of my family members) looked on with increasing dread.

And yes, I think there's been some borderline racist stuff implied here regarding the value of Inuit observations - but also classist, colonialist, and a whole lot of other -ists, as well. Like blasdelb says, science is a verb, not a noun - or, as I put it, "science" as opposed to "SCIENCE!". Traditional knowledge is an extremely important way of knowing the world, and is often more practical and reflective of reality than some of the concepts that have come out of Western institutions. Science is not only done by registered academics in lab coats or with bad facial hair.

Maybe the Inuit are right. Maybe they're wrong. But I think their observations are worthy of more respect than the dismissal they're getting here.
posted by jhandey at 12:20 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


By the way, is there a link to this study somewhere?
posted by salvia at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2012


Seriously, one more time, why are we even talking about "traditional knowledge" here? Traditional knowledge absolutely does not apply in this case. This case has nothing to do with traditional knowledge.

Unless, of course, the Inuit didn't actually observe the polar bears, but instead relied on a tradition passed down by their grandparents to know whether the polar bears were there. Is there any indication that that happened? No. That would be sort of absurd.

This is not traditional knowledge.
posted by koeselitz at 12:59 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, the study was done or released by "the Government of Nunavut." Is that the same as "the Inuit?" Maybe they contracted the research out to some wildlife biologists from Toronto or something. (Still haven't seen the study, apologies if I'm missing it in an obvious place.)
posted by salvia at 1:24 PM on April 5, 2012


The collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery had much more to do with drastic errors in "scientific" fishery management...

...which had more to do with of sociopolitical factors than anything resembling real science. An astonishingly frank look of this failure in detail can be found in: Jeffrey Hutchings, Carl Walters and Richard Haedrich (1997): "Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?” Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. Vol. 54, 1997. "We cite specific research on Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) habitat to illustrate how nonscience influences can interfere with the dissemination of scientific information and the conduct of science...".

Maybe the Inuit are right. Maybe they're wrong. But I think their observations are worthy of more respect than the dismissal they're getting here.

Informal knowledge1 wasn't dismissed in this case, but it's important to understand its limitations. The challenge with informal knowledge like hunter or catch reports is to incorporate it into a model which can be used to do assessments. I've mentioned earlier methods for doing just that. This paper demonstrates the sort of bounds checking that can be done with it, using IK as a hypothesis to validate the field data.

IK, on its own, is hard to base policy on. It often doesn't provide quantitative counts, and never uncertainty in those counts, which was one of the major problems with the cod fishery policies. The IK needs to be translated into a framework for that to happen, and provides the best results only in combination with formal experimental designs. It's not dismissed. Indeed it can be a very good indicator of changes (see Rochet et al. linked above), but neither is it sufficient to base conservation policy on alone.

1Informal Knowledge is more general than TK/TEK, if you prefer that, including commercial data as well as "traditional" knowledge. There's a blurry overlap where Native hunts are concerned.
posted by bonehead at 2:12 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, is there a link to this study somewhere?

Not that I can find. It doesn't appear to be posted on their website yet, just the press release. The polar bear page, however, has a conference presentation (PDF) that talks about how informal knowledge was incorporated in to a similar project that was completed last year (p34):

* aerial survey design

* understanding habitat

* use of non-intrusive counting methods

* community-based sampling as an input to the survey model, "to answer questions about all aspects of polar bear ecology."

"...we conduct interviews on traditional knowledge of habitat use of polar bears. We will be integrating these data directly with our scientific data."

Modern studies are not either/or dichotomies, but collaborations between the scientists and the communities. As this presentation shows they used IF as I described above, to build their experimental design and inform the study hypothesis and results. Native knowledge is not thrown away or dismissed, but included in the assessment.
posted by bonehead at 3:16 PM on April 5, 2012


I can't wait for the right wing news to get a hold of this headline. "it was all a conspiracy by Al Gore. "
posted by Liquidwolf at 3:26 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, is there a link to this study somewhere?

Not that I can find. It doesn't appear to be posted on their website yet, just the press release.


Thanks. In that case, I move we table the discussion of the State of Nunavut's research until we have a methodology to consider.
posted by salvia at 5:15 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look, the polar bears aren't at risk because their population numbers are dropping dramatically.

They're at risk because their habitat, arctic sea ice, which they are genetically programmed toward in the wild and which forms the basis for their sustenance during their feeding season (as they hunt seals using the ice as their base), is pretty much not going to exist anymore in 20-30 years.

NPR just did a piece on this problem a couple of days ago, and some steps which might be taken in order to counteract this problem.
posted by hippybear at 7:11 PM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think that it might be unhelpful to refer to non-formally trained data acquisition as "traditional knowledge (TK)."

Sometimes non-formally trained observers (the local population who have multi-generational lore/data/observations) are competent and accurate in their data collection. In other cases, perhaps stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding, observations lead to incorrect conclusions like confusion over correlation vs. causation.

Just as there's good science and poor science; the quality of the predictions made based on the methodologies validates those methodologies. I for one welcome our Grollar/Pizzly overlords...

Its almost certain that the, accurate, count of the local increase in population is at least partially driven by migrants. Just like global climate change is at least partially driven by anthropomorphic activities.
posted by porpoise at 7:49 PM on April 5, 2012


Just like global climate change is at least partially driven by anthropomorphic activities.

And, of course, by partially you mean about 90%.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:24 PM on April 5, 2012


^This is hyperbole. But I'm pretty sure the scientific consensus is it is almost entirely cause by human activity.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:26 PM on April 5, 2012


Thanks, asnider. I had a sample size of one.
posted by oneironaut at 11:05 PM on April 5, 2012


First Nations populations are entirely capable of not knowing any better, and committing acts of population genocide; on the praries we got close to killing off the bison once they figured out head smashed in buffalo jump, so i am not trusting population numbers from the inuit up north,
posted by PinkMoose at 11:39 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


...which had more to do with of sociopolitical factors than anything resembling real science.

This statement undermines your others on the place of informal/traditional knowledge, which are quite reasonable. The term "real science" is being used here in a way that brings to mind the No True Scotsman fallacy (errors by scientists are repackaged as being the result of contamination by things that don't belong). it's impossible to have science - or anything else that humans do - without sociopolitical factors involved in some measure.
posted by jhandey at 3:06 AM on April 6, 2012


...on the praries we got close to killing off the bison once they figured out head smashed in buffalo jump,...

Are you talking about this? If you're saying that the native practice of herding bison over a cliff caused their near-extinction, I think you're overlooking something. There's also this theory bout the impetus for the mass killings, but it doesn't implicate Native Americans either.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:20 AM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I do want to thank bonehead for such thoughtful responses. I also want to make clear that thinking that the Inuit aren't being taken seriously enough does not mean I think they're right on this one, or that somehow it justifies not taking action to mitigate and try, as best we can, to reverse climate change.

People sometimes get caught up in the idea that 100% certainty in unassailable, Platonic Truth-with-a-capital-T is required (or possible), but that is a prescription for paralysis and easily becomes an excuse for inaction. We have to live and act into uncertainty every day, every second of life. That's the nature of reality. We do the best we can.
posted by jhandey at 4:07 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


PinkMoose: “First Nations populations are entirely capable of not knowing any better, and committing acts of population genocide; on the praries we got close to killing off the bison once they figured out head smashed in buffalo jump, so i am not trusting population numbers from the inuit up north,”

As Kirth Gerson said above, it's certainly true that First Nations can not know any better, but that's an incorrect example. White Europeans were responsible for killing off the bison, not First Nations.
posted by koeselitz at 8:18 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is what happened to the buffalo
posted by Blasdelb at 11:09 AM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess this is a little late for the discussion, but here goes. No reports and no data have been made public in support of any of these most recent claims by the government of Nunavut. At least none have been provided to date on the government's website dedicated to distributing them. Since these are needed to figure out to what extent the claims may be true, it is really pretty futile to speculate on what those particular results mean.

Working from the claims made, though, a couple of things are worth considering. First, a difference in population estimates of fewer than about 100 bears in a population estimate of about 900-1000 cited as evidence of a population increase seems risky to me. The methods used to provide those estimates give notoriously variable results, with wide limits of confidence. A difference between 2 estimates does not make a trend in any case, and it is the longer-term trend that is important.

More significantly, the critical issue is not what the population size is now, under current ice conditions, it is what the populations will be when their critical habitat -- sea ice -- is vastly reduced by a warming climate. That decline in ice cover is happening now. After a short lag, it is reasonable to expect populations also to decline as sea ice coverage declines unless the productivity of the remaining habitat increases to compensate. Additionally, reduced sea ice will increasingly isolate subpopulations, making effective population sizes smaller, which itself is a risk factor for decline of those subpopulations.

Accepting that the world population of the bears is 20,000 - 25,000, the species would be in no significant danger of extinction, given linked subpopulations in a more or less stable habitat. But Arctic sea ice cover duration and extent are both decreasing, and will continue to do so. Nothing is, or can be done to reverse that loss within a timeframe that is meaningful to bear stocks. That is the factor that places polar bears at risk.
posted by dmayhood at 7:56 PM on April 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


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