Modeling the spatial and temporal dynamics of land‐based polar bear denning in Alaska

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Modeling the spatial and temporal dynamics of land-based polar bear denning in Alaska

The distribution of land-based polar bear maternal dens in the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation shifted westward over 3 decades (1982–2015). In recent years land dens were most abundant in the region between the Colville and Canning rivers, where most current oil and gas activity occurs but were concentrated on barrier islands and land within a few kilometers of the coast. Understanding the likely distribution of maternal dens can help local communities and industry reduce the risk of accidental den disturbance.

Abstract

Although polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of the Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) subpopulation have commonly created maternal dens on sea ice in the past, maternal dens on land have become increasingly prevalent as sea ice declines. This trend creates conditions for increased human–bear interactions associated with local communities and industrial activity. Maternal denning is a vulnerable period in the polar bear life cycle, and den disturbance could lead to den abandonment, cub mortality, and negative population impacts. We used published long-term data to parameterize a Bayesian hierarchical model of annual land den abundance during 2000–2015, in 4 regions of northern Alaska, USA, with current or potential future oil and gas activity. We also estimated long-term (1982–2015) shifts in the spatial distribution of land dens within and among regions using kernel density estimation and assessed the influence of local and regional sea ice and snow conditions on den site selection using a random forest resource selection function. Our objectives were to quantify current den distribution and abundance, test for distributional shifts over time, and investigate if those shifts could be attributed to environmental variables related to den habitat. We estimated that between 2000 and 2015, the SBS contained a median 123 dens in a typical year, of which 68 occurred on land. The region between the Colville and Canning rivers, where most current oil and gas activity occurred, also contained the largest fraction of land dens. Overall, land dens were disproportionately concentrated on barrier islands and on land within 30 km of the coast. The probability of dens occurring on land varied from 1982–1999 to 2000–2015 in all regions, and the overall distribution of land dens shifted west between those periods. This regional-scale change in den distribution was predictable based on spatial and temporal heterogeneity in snow and sea ice conditions within 50 km of individual den locations. Land denning is likely to become increasingly common with continued sea ice loss, and our results and modeling framework could be used to design additional mitigation strategies for reducing the risk of incidental take due to den disturbance.

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