Evaluating and ranking threats to the long-term persistence of polar bears

Open-File Report 2014-1254
By: , and 



The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was listed as a globally threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008, mostly due to the significant threat to their future population viability from rapidly declining Arctic sea ice. A core mandate of the ESA is the development of a recovery plan that identifies steps to maintain viable populations of a listed species. A substantive evaluation of the relative influence of putative threats to population persistence is helpful to recovery planning. Because management actions must often be taken in the face of substantial information gaps, a formalized evaluation hypothesizing potential stressors and their relationships with population persistence can improve identification of relevant conservation actions. To this end, we updated a Bayesian network model previously used to forecast the future status of polar bears worldwide. We used new information on actual and predicted sea ice loss and polar bear responses to evaluate the relative influence of plausible threats and their mitigation through management actions on the persistence of polar bears in four ecoregions. We found that polar bear outcomes worsened over time through the end of the century under both stabilized and unabated greenhouse gas (GHG) emission pathways. Under the unabated pathway (i.e., RCP 8.5), the time it took for polar bear populations in two of four ecoregions to reach a dominant probability of greatly decreased was hastened by about 25 years. Under the stabilized GHG emission pathway (i.e., RCP 4.5), where GHG emissions peak around the year 2040, the polar bear population in the Archipelago Ecoregion of High Arctic Canada never reached a dominant probability of greatly decreased, reinforcing earlier suggestions of this ecoregion’s potential to serve as a long-term refugium. The most influential drivers of adverse polar bear outcomes were declines to overall sea ice conditions and to the marine prey base. Improved sea ice conditions substantively lowered the probability of a decreased or greatly decreased outcome, while an elevated marine prey base was slightly less influential in lowering the probability of a decreased or greatly decreased outcome. Stressors associated with in situ human activities exerted considerably less influence on population outcomes. Reduced mortality from hunting and defense of life and property interactions resulted inmodest declines in the probability of a decreased or greatly decreased population outcome. Minimizing other stressors such as trans-Arctic shipping, oil and gas exploration, and point-source pollution had negligible effects on polar bear outcomes, but that could be attributed to uncertainties in the ecological relevance of those specific stressors. Our findings suggest adverse consequences of loss of sea ice habitat become more pronounced as the summer ice-free period lengthens beyond 4 months, which could occur in portions of the Arctic by the middle of this century under the unabated pathway. The long-term persistence of polar bears may be achieved through ameliorating the loss of sea ice habitat, which will likely require stabilizing CO2emissions at or below the ceiling represented by RCP 4.5. Management of other stressors may serve to slow the transition of polar bear populations to progressively worsened outcomes, and improve the prospects of persistence, pending GHG mitigation.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Evaluating and ranking threats to the long-term persistence of polar bears
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2014-1254
DOI 10.3133/ofr20141254
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description vi, 114 p.
Other Geospatial Arctic
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details