Polar bears in southern Beaufort Sea spending more time on land and open water

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Washington, January 8 (ANI): In a long-term study, data collected between 1979 and 2005 has shown that polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea are occurring more frequently on land and in open water and less frequently on ice during the fall.

Polar bears were observed over the 27-year period by US government Minerals Management Services staff as part of the fall bowhead whale aerial survey conducted annually in the southern Beaufort Sea.

Ice conditions were also recorded.

Data showed that as ice conditions changed, bears were being found on different habitats.

Between 1979 and 1987, 12 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice. Between 1997 and 2005 however, 90 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice.

"When bears were seen, they were more often seen in open water and on land than on sea ice. At the same time, changes were observed in ice, suggesting that these observations are connected," said Rode.

In addition, the number of bears sighted steadily increased from 138 bears in the years 1979-1987, to 271 bears between 1988 and 1996, and finally to 468 bears between 1997 and 2005.

Data were drawn from studies created to track bowhead whale migration routes, not polar bear populations.

Therefore, it should not be concluded that more bears are occurring in the nearshore waters off the Southern Beaufort Sea coast.

However, according to Karyn Rode, a polar bear biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska, "Our results do suggest that bears that use the nearshore area are more likely to occur on land in recent years because their preferred habitat, sea ice, is unavailable."

"This is one of the few data sets available over such a long time frame. It shows there has been a shift in habitat use," she said.

This work is helpful in highlighting the need to proactively develop programs to manage bear-human interactions in coastal areas. (ANI)

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