Polar bears depend entirely on sea ice for survival. In recent years, a warming climate has caused major changes in the Arctic sea ice environment, leading to concerns regarding the status of polar bear populations. Here we present findings from long-term studies of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) region of the U.S. and Canada, which are relevant to these concerns. We applied open population capture-recapture models to data collected from 2001 to 2006, and estimated there were 1,526 (95% CI = 1,211; 1,841) polar bears in the SBS region in 2006. The number of polar bears in this region was previously estimated to be approximately 1,800. Because precision of earlier estimates was low, our current estimate of population size and the earlier ones cannot be statistically differentiated. For the 2001-06 period, the best fitting capture-recapture model provided estimates of total apparent survival of 0.43 for cubs of the year (COYs), and 0.92 for all polar bears older than COYs. Because the survival rates for older polar bears included multiple sex and age strata, they could not be compared to previous estimates. Survival rates for COYs, however, were significantly lower than estimates derived in earlier studies (P = 0.03). The lower survival of COYs was corroborated by a comparison of the number of COYs per adult female for periods before (1967-89) and after (1990-2006) the winter of 1989-90, when warming temperatures and altered atmospheric circulation caused an abrupt change in sea ice conditions in the Arctic basin. In the latter period, there were significantly more COYs per adult female in the spring (P = 0.02), and significantly fewer COYs per adult female in the autumn (P < 0.001). Apparently, cub production was higher in the latter period, but fewer cubs survived beyond the first 6 months of life. Parallel with declining survival, skull measurements suggested that COYs captured from 1990 to 2006 were smaller than those captured before 1990. Similarly, both skull measurements and body weights suggested that adult males captured from 1990 to 2006 were smaller than those captured before 1990. The smaller stature of males was especially notable because it corresponded with a higher mean age of adult males. Male polar bears continue to grow into their teens, and if adequately nourished, the older males captured in the latter period should have been larger than those captured earlier. In western Hudson Bay, Canada, a significant decline in population size was preceded by observed declines in cub survival and physical stature. The evidence of declining recruitment and body size reported here, therefore, suggests vigilance regarding the future of polar bears in the SBS region.
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USGS Numbered Series
Polar Bear Population Status in the Southern Beaufort Sea