The North American population of king eiders (Somateria spectabilis) has declined by more than 50% since the late 1970s for unknown reasons. King eiders spend most of their lives in remote areas, forcing managers to make regulatory and conservation decisions based on very little information. We incorporated available published estimates of vital rates with new estimates to build a female, stage-based matrix population model for king eiders and examine the processes underlying population dynamics of king eiders breeding at 2 sites, Teshekpuk and Kuparuk, on the coastal plain of northern Alaska and wintering around the Bering Sea (2001–2010). We predicted a decreasing population (λ = 0.981, 95% CI: 0.978–0.985), and that population growth was most sensitive to changes in adult female survival (sensitivity = 0.92). Low duckling survival may be a bottleneck to productivity (variation in ducking survival accounted for 66% of retrospective variation in λ). Adult survival was high (0.94) and invariant ( = 0.0002, 95% CI: 0.0000–0.0007); however, catastrophic events could have a major impact and we need to consider how to mitigate and manage threats to adult survival. A hypothetical oil spill affecting breeding females in a primary spring staging area resulted in a severe population decline; although, transient population dynamics were relatively stable. However, if no catastrophic events occur, the more variable reproductive parameters (duckling and nest survival) may be more responsive to management actions. Published 2012. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.