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Relative influences of climate change and human activity on the onshore distribution of polar bears

October 31, 2017

Climate change is altering habitat for many species, leading to shifts in distributions that can increase levels of human-wildlife conflict. To develop effective strategies for minimizing human-wildlife conflict, we must understand the relative influences that climate change and other factors have on wildlife distributions. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are increasingly using land during summer and autumn due to sea ice loss, leading to higher incidents of conflict and concerns for human safety. We sought to understand the relative influence of sea ice conditions, onshore habitat characteristics, and human-provisioned food attractants on the distribution and abundance of polar bears while on shore. We also wanted to determine how mitigation measures might reduce human-polar bear conflict associated with an anthropogenic food source. We built a Bayesian hierarchical model based on 14 years of aerial survey data to estimate the weekly number and distribution of polar bears on the coast of northern Alaska in autumn. We then used the model to predict how effective two management options for handling subsistence-harvested whale remains in the community of Kaktovik, Alaska might be. The distribution of bears on shore was most strongly influenced by the presence of whale carcasses and to a lesser extent sea ice and onshore habitat conditions. The numbers of bears on shore were related to sea ice conditions. The two management strategies for handling the whale carcasses reduced the estimated number of bears near Kaktovik by > 75%. By considering multiple factors associated with the onshore distribution and abundance of polar bears we discerned what role human activities played in where bears occur and how successful efforts to manage the whale carcasses might be for reducing human-polar bear conflict.

Publication Year 2017
Title Relative influences of climate change and human activity on the onshore distribution of polar bears
DOI 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.08.005
Authors Ryan H. Wilson, Eric V. Regehr, Michelle St. Martin, Todd C. Atwood, Elizabeth L. Peacock, Susanne Miller, George J. Divoky
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Biological Conservation
Index ID 70193123
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB