Polar bear population status in the northern Beaufort Sea, Canada, 1971–2006

Authors

  • Ian Stirling,

    Corresponding author
    1. Wildlife Research Division, Science and Technology Branch, Environment Canada, 5320-122nd Street, Edmonton, Alberta T6H 3S5 Canada
    2. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6H 3S5 Canada
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  • Trent L. McDonald,

    1. Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc., 2003 Central Ave., Cheyenne, Wyoming 82070 USA
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  • E. S. Richardson,

    1. Wildlife Research Division, Science and Technology Branch, Environment Canada, 5320-122nd Street, Edmonton, Alberta T6H 3S5 Canada
    2. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6H 3S5 Canada
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  • Eric V. Regehr,

    1. USGS Alaska Science Center, Biological Science Office, 4210 University Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99508 USA
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    •  Present address: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1011 E. Tudor Rd., MS341, Anchorage, Alaska 99503 USA.

  • Steven C. Amstrup

    1. USGS Alaska Science Center, Biological Science Office, 4210 University Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99508 USA
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    •  Present address: Polar Bears International, 810 N. Wallace, Suite E, P.O. Box 3008, Bozeman, Montana 59772 USA.


  • Corresponding Editor: P. K. Dayton.

Abstract

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the northern Beaufort Sea (NB) population occur on the perimeter of the polar basin adjacent to the northwestern islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Sea ice converges on the islands through most of the year. We used open-population capture–recapture models to estimate population size and vital rates of polar bears between 1971 and 2006 to: (1) assess relationships between survival, sex and age, and time period; (2) evaluate the long-term importance of sea ice quality and availability in relation to climate warming; and (3) note future management and conservation concerns. The highest-ranking models suggested that survival of polar bears varied by age class and with changes in the sea ice habitat. Model-averaged estimates of survival (which include harvest mortality) for senescent adults ranged from 0.37 to 0.62, from 0.22 to 0.68 for cubs of the year (COY) and yearlings, and from 0.77 to 0.92 for 2–4 year-olds and adults. Horvtiz-Thompson (HT) estimates of population size were not significantly different among the decades of our study. The population size estimated for the 2000s was 980 ± 155 (mean and 95% CI). These estimates apply primarily to that segment of the NB population residing west and south of Banks Island. The NB polar bear population appears to have been stable or possibly increasing slightly during the period of our study. This suggests that ice conditions have remained suitable and similar for feeding in summer and fall during most years and that the traditional and legal Inuvialuit harvest has not exceeded sustainable levels. However, the amount of ice remaining in the study area at the end of summer, and the proportion that continues to lie over the biologically productive continental shelf (<300 m water depth) has declined over the 35-year period of this study. If the climate continues to warm as predicted, we predict that the polar bear population in the northern Beaufort Sea will eventually decline. Management and conservation practices for polar bears in relation to both aboriginal harvesting and offshore industrial activity will need to adapt.

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