1. Greenhouse gas-induced warming in the Arctic has caused declines in sea ice extent and changed its composition, raising concerns by all circumpolar nations for polar bear conservation.
2. Negative impacts have been observed in three well-studied polar bear subpopulations. Most subpopulations, however, receive little or no direct monitoring, hence, resource selection functions (RSF) may provide a useful proxy of polar bear distributions. However, the efficacy of RSFs constructed from past data, i.e., reference RSFs, may be degraded under contemporary conditions, especially in a rapidly changing environment.
3. We assessed published Arctic-wide reference RSFs using tracking data from adult female polar bears captured in the Beaufort Sea. We compared telemetry-derived seasonal distributions of polar bears to RSF-defined optimal sea ice habitat during the period of RSF model development, 1985–1995, and two subsequent periods with diminished sea ice: 1996–2006 and 2007–2016. From these comparisons, we assessed the applicability of the reference RSFs for contemporary polar bear conservation.
4. In the two decades following the 1985–1995 reference period, use and availability of optimal habitat by polar bears declined during the ice melt, ice minimum and ice growth seasons. During the ice maximum season (i.e., winter), polar bears used the best habitat available, which changed relatively little across the three decades of study. During the ice melt, ice minimum and ice growth seasons, optimal habitat in areas used by polar bears decreased and was displaced north and east of the Alaska Beaufort Sea coast. As optimal habitat diminished in these seasons, polar bears expanded their range and occupied greater areas of sub-optimal habitat.
5. Synthesis and applications: Sea ice declines due to climate change continue to challenge polar bears and their conservation. The distribution of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears remained similar during the ice maximum season, so the reference RSFs developed from data collected >20 years ago continue to accurately model their winter distribution. In contrast, reference RSFs for the ice transitional and minimum seasons showed diminished predictive efficacy but were useful in revealing that contemporary polar bears have been increasingly forced to use sub-optimal habitats during those seasons.