Polar Bear Research

Science Center Objects

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are one of 4 marine mammal species managed by the U.S. Department of Interior. The USGS Alaska Science Center leads long–term research on polar bears to inform local, state, national and international policy makers regarding conservation of the species and its habitat. Our studies, ongoing since 1985, are focused on population dynamics, health and energetics, distribution and movements, maternal denning, and methods development. The majority of our research focuses on the two polar bear subpopulation’s whose range includes Alaska: the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation that ranges between the North Slope of Alaska and western Canada and the Chukchi Sea or Alaska-Chukotka subpopulation that ranges between the northwest coast of Alaska and eastern Russia. The overarching goal of our research is to assess current and projected future responses of polar bears to a rapidly changing Arctic environment.

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Polar bear family at a whale bone pile near Kaktovik, Alaska

Polar bear family at a whale bone pile near Kaktovik, Alaska.
​​​​​​​(Public domain.)

Population Dynamics

Information on the status and trends of polar bear populations are needed to inform management of polar bears under US laws and international agreements. The USGS maintains a long-term research program focused on the population dynamics of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  In addition, the USGS collaborates with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in population studies in the Chukchi Sea. To estimate both the population size and vital rates, we have used mark-recapture studies relying on physical capture of bears, primarily during the spring. We are currently developing an analytical approach that will allow us to integrate additional types of data (e.g., spatial data, non-invasively collected genetic data) into the modeling process to provide improved assessments of population status. Results of past studies have allowed us to assess the relationships between population vital rates and environmental change, which provides our partners with information needed to inform management decisions.

Health and Energetics

The warming climate has the potential to drive significant changes in the health and energetics of Arctic fauna, particularly those dependent on sea ice habitats like polar bears. An animal’s health and energetic state reflects the interaction between its behavioral choices and the environment. Because of this, measuring changes in health and energetics has potential for revealing important associations between environmental stressors and population dynamics. Research in this focal area is centered on (i) collecting data on a variety of systems that help determine and mediate polar bear health and energetics, and (ii) developing monitoring and surveillance programs for detecting changes in population health over time. Additionally, this work will allow us to develop an understanding of how polar bear populations will respond to a variety of stressors modulated by climate change, including contaminant and pathogen exposures, changes in food web structure and prey accessibility, and changes in spatial distribution.

​​​​​​​Distribution and Movements

A polar bear walks across rubble ice in the Alaska portion of the southern Beaufort Sea

A polar bear walks across rubble ice in the Alaska portion of the southern Beaufort Sea. 
(Credit: Mike Lockhart, USGS. Public domain.)

Polar bears are tied to the sea ice for nearly all of their life cycle functions. Most important of these is foraging, or access to food. Polar bears almost exclusively eat seals, and they are equally as dependent upon the sea for their nutrition as are seals, whales, and other aquatic mammals. Polar bears are not aquatic, however, and their only access to the seals is from the surface of the sea ice. Over the past 25 years, the summer sea ice melt period has lengthened, and summer sea ice cover has declined by over half a million square miles. In winter, there have been dramatic reductions in the amount of old ice, predominantly in the western Arctic. This loss of stable old ice has catalyzed additional losses of sea ice cover each summer because the thinner younger ice is more easily melted during the recent warmer summers. Research in this focal area seeks to develop a better understanding of how changes in the distribution and characteristics of sea ice habitat are likely to affect polar bear fitness, distribution, and interactions with people. If we know how polar bears respond to changes in ice quantity and quality, we will be able to predict how forecasted changes in the ice may affect future polar bear populations. This will give managers the best chance of adapting strategies to assure the long-term persistence of polar bears in a changing ice environment.

Maternal Denning

Pregnant polar bears enter maternity dens in October or early November, give birth to cubs in December or early January, and exit dens in March or early April. Historically, most polar bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea population constructed maternity dens on the sea ice. However, over the last three decades, as sea ice has become thinner and more prone to fragmentation, there has been a landward shift in the distribution of dens. Based on data collected from radio-tagged adult female bears, maternal denning now occurs at relatively high densities along the central and eastern Arctic coastal plain of Alaska. The availability of denning habitat― mediated by landscape features that facilitate the formation of snow drifts― appears to increase in the eastern portion of the Alaska coastal plain. In the Chukchi Sea, polar bears historically denned primarily on land in both Russia and the Alaska.  In recent years as sea ice extent has retreated further north in the fall, Chukchi Sea polar bears have shifted land-based denning northward primarily on Wrangel and Herald Islands in Russia and rarely on the Alaskan coast.  Identifying factors influencing the distribution of dens and denning duration will allow us to better monitor reproductive success and mitigate the potential for disturbance of denned bears from anthropogenic activities.

Methods Development

Studying polar bears is difficult: they range widely, the environmental conditions are challenging and rapidly changing, and the logistics of mounting field efforts are incredibly expensive. Despite all that, the information needs of managers continues to increase. To cope with these challenges and needs, we are devoting effort to improving the methods we use to collect and analyze data.