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Analyses on subpopulation abundance and annual number of maternal dens for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the southern Beaufort Sea, Alaska

October 1, 2020

The long-term persistence of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) is threatened by sea-ice loss due to climate change, which is concurrently providing an opportunity in the Arctic for increased anthropogenic activities including natural resource extraction. Mitigating the risk of those activities, which can adversely affect the population dynamics of the southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) subpopulation, is an emerging challenge as polar bears become more reliant on land and come into more frequent contact with humans. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether industrial activities will have a negligible impact on the SBS subpopulation. Information important to making that determination includes estimates of subpopulation abundance and the number of maternal dens likely to be present in areas where industrial activities occur. We analyzed mark-recapture data collected from SBS polar bears sampled in Alaska during 2001–16 using multistate Cormack-Jolly-Seber models. Estimated survival rates were relatively high during 2001–03, lower during 2004–08, then higher during 2009–15 except for 2012. Estimated abundance in the Alaska part of the SBS was consistent with the estimated survival rates, declining from about 1,300 bears in 2003 to 525 bears in 2006 and then remaining generally stable during 2006–15. The point estimate for the Alaska part of the SBS in 2015, the last year in which abundance could be estimated, was 573 bears (95-percent credible interval = 232, 1,140 bears). To estimate the expected number of terrestrial dens likely to be present in a given region in a given year, we used a Bayesian modeling approach based on calculations derived from SBS demographic and denning data. We estimated that the entire SBS subpopulation produced 123 dens per year (median; 95-percent credible interval = 69, 198 dens), 66 (median; 95-percent credible interval = 35, 110 dens) of which were land-based. Most land-based dens were located between the Colville and Canning Rivers (which includes the Prudhoe Bay-Kuparuk industrial footprint), followed by the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.