In the last blog, I talked about how this year was mostly good for Churchill’s bears but pretty bad for some individual bears that swam ashore early. Today, we’ll look at the rest of the world’s bears…
Two polar bear populations inhabit Alaska – the Southern Beaufort and the Chukchi Sea populations. Although they are both living on the same highly variable sea ice, they seem to be reacting quite differently to changing conditions. The Chukchi Sea population is reported in good condition with a high birth and cub survival rate. In 2013, researchers found a mother and cubs denning further SOUTH on the ice than ever recorded. In that same year, the largest live polar bear on record was handled and released. He weighed an incredible 1,390 lbs. All signs point to a healthy and thriving population on the Chukchi and Bering Seas, seemingly thumbing their nose at record low sea ice.
The other population has its challenges. It is currently making the news because of a significant population drop in the early 2000s but this may be as much due to heavy ice years as it is to a shrinking ice pack. The good news is that more maternity dens seem to be found on land in this region and denning on land may give these bears early season access to shore ice, an excellent hunting platform in the fall. Denning on land is much better than out on the ice, bears produce more cubs and healthier cubs, the one great challenge is that swimming out to the pack ice can result in some epic journeys.
This population has long been a mystery but the latest population study, conducted by icebreaker for the most part, seems to indicate much higher numbers than previously believe. In fact, there could be about three times as many bears there, about 3000 animals… This may suggest that the Laptev Sea, Kara’s neighbouring population, may be under-recorded as well.
Russia conducts their polar bear surveys less frequently than other nations so it is unlikely we will get much more information as to trends in this population. As with all polar bears north of Russia, they are threatened by oil and gas development, traffic through the Northeast Passage. They may have a short reprieve now that oil prices have dropped so hopefully we can get a grasp on numbers before the ‘rush’ picks up again.
Researchers in Ontario are beginning to suspect that the polar bears in James Bay, the world’s southernmost polar bears, may be genetically distinct from the Southern Hudson Bay population. This could result in another ‘population’ being added to make 20 distinct groups of bears through the world. Of course, this area only hosts about 100 bears but on another positive note, satellite trackers seem to show that almost all collared females have two cubs this season.
Svalbard (Barents Sea)
News out of Svalbard was pretty mixed this year, some reports told of a good amount of ice while others talked of starving bears. Ice in this area of the arctic, north of Europe, is highly variable to say the least. Polar bears east of Greenland and west of Alaska seem to travel much greater distances than Canada’s polar bears and, in turn, it is harder to get a grasp on numbers. One area that was heavily populated in one year could be almost abandoned the next. Still, it is generally believed that about 3,000 reside in Svalbard and Kong Karls Island.
Regardless, the breakup of multiyear ice north of Alaska has likely had a detrimental effect on this group. Ice gets pushed over the north pole and around Greenland. The less ice pushed through this current, likely results in less ice for Svalbard but again, its hard to say for sure. These bears are threatened by toxins and pollutants that currents carry into the Barents Sea. Any pollution in the food chain is magnified tenfold as it travels up the system to this top predator.
Nunavut continues to do some very nice work in terms of non-invasive bear research. Biopsy darts that reduce the need for tranquilizing and handling are increasingly being used in Canada with some very positive results. As well, researchers are looking at the potential to count polar bears from space, using satellite images to determine populations while the bears are on land in August. Finally, aerial transect surveys are now once again commonplace and their numbers are being accepted by the IUCN for population management purposes. All good news from what I can see.
One final bit of good news is that Quebec is now finally using a quote system for the traditional polar bear hunt. This was the last unregulated polar bear hunt in Canada and while the Davis Strait and Southern Hudson Bay populations appear to be healthy, it just didn’t make any sense not to have a management system in place. The quota set for Nunavik’s Inuit and Ontario’s Cree hunters is 45 animals, 25% less than previously harvested.
So, life remains a challenge for bears but there are bright spots for this highly resilient species. With pressure on to get some usable population numbers and Russia undertaking more research programs, we can expect more news through the coming year. Now that Western Hudson Bay has been announced as ‘stable’ and Kara Sea numbers are higher than anticipated, I could polar bear population numbers revised worldwide… quite likely, we are looking at about 30-35,000 bears on this planet rather than 20-25,000…