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Forecasting consequences of changing sea ice availability for Pacific walruses

December 1, 2017

The accelerating rate of anthropogenic alteration and disturbance of environments has increased the need for forecasting effects of environmental change on fish and wildlife populations. Models linking projections of environmental change with behavioral responses and bioenergetic effects can provide a basis for these forecasts. There is particular interest in forecasting effects of projected reductions in sea ice availability on Pacific walruses (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). Declining extent of summer sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has caused Pacific walruses to increase use of coastal haulouts and decrease use of more productive offshore feeding areas. Such climate-induced changes in distribution and behavior could ultimately affect the status of the population. We developed behavioral models to relate changes in sea ice availability to adult female walrus movements and activity levels, and adapted previously developed bioenergetics models to relate those activity levels to energy requirements and the ability to meet those requirements. We then linked these models to general circulation model projections of future ice availability to forecast autumn body condition for female walruses during mid- and late-century time periods. Our results suggest that as sea ice becomes less available in the Chukchi Sea, female walruses will spend more time in the southwestern region of that sea, less time resting, and less time foraging. Median forecasted autumn body masses were 7–12% lower in future scenarios than during recent times, but posterior distributions broadly overlapped and median forecasted seasonal mass losses (15–34%) were comparable to seasonal mass losses routinely experienced by other pinnipeds. These seasonal reductions in body condition would be unlikely to result in demographic effects, but if walruses were unable to rebuild endogenous reserves while wintering in the Bering Sea, cumulative effects could have implications for reproduction and survival, ultimately affecting the status of the Pacific walrus population. Our approach provides a general framework for forecasting consequences of the broad range of environmental changes and anthropogenic disturbances that may affect bioenergetics through behavioral responses or changes in prey availability.

Publication Year 2017
Title Forecasting consequences of changing sea ice availability for Pacific walruses
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.2014
Authors Mark S. Udevitz, Chadwick V. Jay, Rebecca L. Taylor, Anthony S. Fischbach, William S. Beatty, Shawn R. Noren
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70194758
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB