Possible Effects of Climate Warming on Selected Populations of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic

Ian Stirling, Claire L. Parkinson

Abstract


Polar bears depend on sea ice for survival. Climate warming in the Arctic has caused significant declines in total cover and thickness of sea ice in the polar basin and progressively earlier breakup in some areas. Inuit hunters in the areas of four polar bear populations in the eastern Canadian Arctic (including Western Hudson Bay) have reported seeing more bears near settlements during the open-water period in recent years. In a fifth ecologically similar population, no changes have yet been reported by Inuit hunters. These observations, interpreted as evidence of increasing population size, have resulted in increases in hunting quotas. However, long-term data on the population size and body condition of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay, as well as population and harvest data from Baffin Bay, make it clear that those two populations at least are more likely to be declining, not increasing. While the ecological details vary in the regions occupied by the five different populations discussed in this paper, analysis of passive-microwave satellite imagery beginning in the late 1970s indicates that the sea ice is breaking up at progressively earlier dates, so that bears must fast for longer periods during the open-water season. Thus, at least part of the explanation for the appearance of more bears near coastal communities and hunting camps is likely that they are searching for alternative food sources in years when their stored body fat depots may be depleted before freeze-up, when they can return to the sea ice to hunt seals again. We hypothesize that, if the climate continues to warm as projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then polar bears in all five populations discussed in this paper will be increasingly food-stressed, and their numbers are likely to decline eventually, probably significantly so. As these populations decline, problem interactions between bears and humans will likely continue, and possibly increase, as the bears seek alternative food sources. Taken together, the data reported in this paper suggest that a precautionary approach be taken to the harvesting of polar bears and that the potential effects of climate warming be incorporated into planning for the management and conservation of this species throughout the Arctic.

Key words: climate warming, polar bear, Ursus maritimus, sea ice, Arctic

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14430/arctic312