Since President Obama announced expanded protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and a Protected Marine Area in Alaska, there has been a fair bit of discussion about how this affect polar bears, if at all. I would say that those ‘crowing’ about this decision are absolutely right to do so. This is a very important move for Alaska’s polar bears.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is extremely important for the Southern Beaufort polar bear population, especially the pregnant females – obviously critical animals for any population. The vast majority of terrestrial dens occur within the ANWR boundaries and across the border in Canada’s Ivvavik National Park and Herschel Island. It is here that landfast ice first connects with the pack in the fall, likely allowing pregnant bears are fair bit easier commute to their favourite denning site, usually coastal or island bluffs where snow rapidly accumulates.
About 50% of pregnant females den on land while the rest use the offshore pack ice. Denning on land is far better for polar bears. Cub production and health are significantly better for cubs born on land as opposed to the sea ice. Emerging from a den on the ice, the female may have drifted a few hundred kilometres over the winter. Given that females are pretty site specific, this is also not a preferred outcome.
This level of sea ice denning is unique to this population and human activity, including hunting and industrial development, is cited as a likely influence. The Inupiat used to hunt polar bear in their maternity dens until the 1960s and DEW (Distant Early Warning) stations were located every 50 miles along this coast in the 1950s, each hosting a significant and unrecorded trade in bear skins. These harvest pressures likely wiped out some coastal denning areas.
To the west of ANWR lies Prudhoe Bay, by far the United States’ largest oil field and not really a preferable place for bears to get some privacy. To the east of Ivvavik, you have the communities of Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik and the Cape Bathurst Polynya, an area of open water and unconsolidated ice – good access to seals but not great access to land.
So, likely a little more than half the cubs, the healthiest, are born in this area. Life is tough for the Beaufort bears, it seems they wait a full year longer than Canadian bears to reach sexual maturity, slowing an already slow reproductive rate. They take population hits from heavy ice years (echoing for a full three years after) but also from rapidly changing ice on this side of the arctic. Protecting the coastal plain as well as the Kaktovik and Barrow whaling areas is absolutely huge news for these bears. Declaring ANWR as ‘wilderness’ is a good move and just makes sense.
Heading west, Obama also protected a 25 mile strip along the Alaskan coast including the Hanna Shoal, a critical walrus haul-out. This stretches from Barrow down the Northwest coast of Alaska to Point Lay, I believe. There is evidence of maternity denning in this area for the Chukchi population, a group of bears that appears to be doing exceedingly well despite massive sea ice fluctuations.
Given that one of the primary goals of the first International meeting on polar bears was to identify and protect denning habitat, I would say that the United States has finally come through… it only took fifty years to do it!
While Alaskan Republicans lost their mind about this decision, it should be noted that an absolutely massive petroleum development reserve is sandwiched in between these protected areas, if developed, it would likely rival Prudhoe Bay in size and production. So, Alaska is not exactly going to run out of oil because of this decision. Of course, Obama could have gone a little further with some of these measures from my view but these days, we’ll take whatever environmental protection we can get.