The Chukchi Sea finally has a polar bear population estimate! According to survey results from 2016 only recently made public, about 2937 bears (1522-5944) currently inhabit the region, making this the largest subpopulation in the Arctic. This is exciting news — and a huge accomplishment — but the US Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the work has been oddly mum on the topic.
Not only that, but an extrapolation of that estimate calculated by USFWS researchers for Chukchi plus Alaska (the US portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation) was estimated at 4437 (2283-9527), although with “significant uncertainty.” Nevertheless, it means the 2016 estimate for Alaska could be roughly three times what it was in 2010: a whopping 1500 or so, up from about 450 (or about 225-650) for the same area estimated during the last survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015: Fig. 5a).
Even if the real number for Alaska is only twice as large (~1000), that’s still a huge improvement. It would eliminate the Southern Beaufort as the only polar bear subpopulation in the Arctic to have shown a significant decline blamed on human-caused global warming (Crockford 2018). If the recovery is real, it means the 2004-2006 decline was a temporary fluctuation after all, just like previous declines in the region. I expect, however, that it will take a dedicated SB population survey for officials to concede that point.
There is not yet a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. in prep), but the numbers were announced at the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears held at the end of July this year (AC SWG 2018) by Eric Regehr (formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as of 2017 at the University of Washington). [h/t to G.H.] This was the same report that raised the quota for subsistence hunting in the Chukchi from 58 to 85, based on these new figures, as I discussed last week.
From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.
Regehr was quoted as saying:
“Chukchi bears remain larger and fatter and have not seen downward trends in cub production and survival, according to new preliminary information on the health and numbers of bears.”
Recent research on polar bears and their prey has been on-going in the Chukchi Sea since 2008 (Crawford et al. 2015; Crawford and Quackenbush 2013; Rode and Regehr 2010; Regehr et al. 2010, Rode et al. 2014, 2015, 2018). Now it’s all coming together to paint a picture of a large population of polar bears in excellent physical condition, with strong reproduction and cub survival (such as triplet litters sighted on numberous occasions), despite a much longer ice-free period in summer than in the 1980s.
Fat bears have been a common summer sight in the Chukchi Sea (see photo below from Sept. 2017 on Wrangel Island) as well as in Alaska. Despite the huge declines in summer sea ice since 2007, Chukchi bears are doing better than OK — they are truly thriving.
Gone now is the “guesstimate” of about 2000 used by polar bear specialists (but only when they really need one for their models): otherwise, since 2005 the size of the Chukchi was said to be “unknown.”