Good news about wildlife ain’t easy to come by nowadays, not least when it comes to the polar bear. Despite all of their ferocity, they have become the pitiful face of melting sea ice, environmental doom, and dwindling wildlife.
So, it’s with great pleasure we bring you some promising news about these fluffy Arctic juggernauts.
Scientists have carried out their first full assessment of polar bears living in the Chukchi Sea region between Russia and Alaska. Much to their surprise, they’re doing great. As reported in the journal Scientific Reports, the research suggests that the population is healthy, stable, and numbering around 3,000 animals.
“This work represents a decade of research that gives us a first estimate of the abundance and status of the Chukchi Sea subpopulation,” first author Eric Regehr, a researcher who started the project as a biologist in Alaska with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.
“Despite having about one month less time on preferred sea ice habitats to hunt compared with 25 years ago, we found that the Chukchi Sea subpopulation was doing well from 2008 to 2016.”
Researchers led by Washington University studied this population by tagging roughly 60 polar bears each year from 2008 to 2016. Regehr and his colleagues would also use helicopters to track down the bears, shoot them with a tranquilizer dart, apply a tag, and collect biological samples.
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the world, all located around the northernmost tips of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia in the Arctic Circle. Needless to say, polar bears as a whole are pretty screwed, or “vulnerable to extinction” if we’re getting technical, with most populations showing clear signs of stress. Overall population trends remain unclear, but their state is only likely to worsen as climate change tightens its jaws and sea ice continues to melt away.
“Sea-ice loss due to climate change remains the primary threat to the species but, as this study shows, there is variation in when and where the effects of sea-ice loss appear,” explained Regehr. “Some subpopulations are already declining while others are still doing OK.”
This Chukchi Sea population is one of these lucky few that are surviving, perhaps even thriving, in the face of adversity. How come? The short answer: seals, both ringed and bearded, and lots of them.
“It’s a very rich area. Most of the Chukchi Sea is shallow, with nutrient-rich waters coming up from the Pacific. This translates into high biological productivity and, importantly for the polar bears, a lot of seals,” added Regehr.
“Just flying around, it’s night and day in terms of how many seals and other animals you see.”