Use of subsistence-harvested whale carcasses by polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea

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The availability of a food subsidy has the potential to influence the condition, behavior, fitness, and population dynamics of a species. Since the early 2000s, monitoring efforts along the coast of northern Alaska indicated a higher proportion of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the southern Beaufort Sea (SB) subpopulation come onshore and feed at subsistence-harvested bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) carcasses during the fall and early winter seasons. This increase in onshore usage by polar bears is a consequence of decreasing sea ice coverage. Concurrently, Indigenous communities annually hunt bowhead whale and deposit the unused remains at localized “bone piles” creating the potential for human-bear interactions. Our objective was to determine the annual number of polar bears feeding at the bone pile near Kaktovik, Alaska. Using a hair snag surrounding the bone pile, we collected hair samples to identify individual bears via microsatellite genotypes during 2011-2014. We used capture-mark-recapture data in the POPAN open-population model to estimate the number of bears visiting the bone pile. We estimated that 146 (SE = 21) bears (sexes combined) used the bone pile in 2012, which represents approximately 16% of the SB polar bear subpopulation. Our results indicated that numerous SB polar bears, males and females, visited the bone pile within a given year. Thus, it will be important to monitor the number of bears using the bone pile and subsequent human-bear interactions and conflicts along the northern coast of Alaska. This is particularly important if polar sea ice continues to recede, which will likely result in increasing numbers of polar bears using the bone pile as a food subsidy.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Use of subsistence-harvested whale carcasses by polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea
Series title Arctic
DOI 10.14430/arctic69449
Volume 72
Issue 4
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Arctic Institute of North America
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description 148 p.
First page 337
Last page 484
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Southern Beaufort Sea
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