Thursday, 23 March 2017

How to conserve polar bears -- and maintain subsistence harvest -- under climate change

Date: March 15, 2017
Source: University of Washington

Polar bears are listed as a threatened species as the ice-covered ocean they depend on for hunting and transportation becomes scarce. Changes in the Arctic Ocean are also affecting the humans who have called this area home and hunted across the landscape for thousands of years.

Research from the University of Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey investigates what these changes could mean for subsistence harvest of polar bears -- a practice that has cultural, nutritional and economic importance to many Northern communities.

An open-access study published this month in the Journal of Applied Ecology addresses this question using an improved model of how polar bear populations function.

"A big question in polar bear conservation is: How will habitat loss and harvest interact to affect the status of polar bear populations?" said lead author Eric Regehr, a researcher with the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory who did the work as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The authors identify ways to maintain subsistence harvest without compounding the negative effects of habitat loss, as long as there is accurate population data and the harvest is responsive to changes in the environment.

"A key takeaway is that, under many conditions, it is possible to identify a rate of harvest -- the fraction of a population to be removed each year -- that doesn't drive down the population or accelerate any potential population declines due to habitat loss," Regehr said.
Currently there are about 26,000 polar bears divided into 19 subpopulations across the Arctic, two of which occur partially in Alaska. The species was listed as threatened throughout its range under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2008 due to observed and projected loss of sea-ice habitat due to climate change.

"The current status of the 19 subpopulations in relation to climate change is variable. Some are declining or exhibiting signs of stress," Regehr said. "Because of regional variation in environmental conditions and ecology, some subpopulations are stable or may be increasing."


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