Population growth and colonization of Steller sea lions in the Glacier Bay region of southeastern Alaska: 1970s–2009

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Abstract

We estimated trends in numbers of Steller sea lions in the Glacier Bay region of the eastern population from the 1970s to 2009. We documented the colonization of several new haul-outs and the transition of one haul-out (Graves Rocks) to a rookery, assessed seasonal patterns in distribution, and compared counts from different observation platforms. Sea lions increased in the region by 8.2%/yr (95%CI = 6.4%–10.0%), with the most growth at South Marble Island in Glacier Bay (16.6%/yr, 1991–2009) and rapid growth in Cross Sound. Seasonal patterns in the distribution of sea lions were likely influenced by new breeding opportunities and the seasonal availability of prey. Factors that likely contributed to the exceptional growth include availability of new habitat following deglaciation, immigration, redistribution, decreases in mortality, and ecosystem-level changes. The rapid increase in sea lion numbers in this region is of particular interest in light of dramatic declines in the western population and evidence that Steller sea lions from both the eastern and western populations colonized the Graves Rocks rookery. The colonization and rookery development in this dynamic area may signal the reversal of the reproductive isolation of the two populations.

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