Polar bears in Canada’s western Hudson Bay – on the southern edge of the Arctic – continue to die in large numbers, according to a new government survey of terrestrial carnivores. Females and cubs are going through a particularly difficult time.
Researchers surveyed western Hudson Bay – home to Churchill, the city called ‘the polar bear capital of the world’ – by air in 2021 and estimated there were 618 bears, up from 842 in 2016, during the last survey.
“The actual decline is much larger than I expected,” said University of Alberta biology professor Andrew Derocher, who has been studying Hudson Bay polar bears for nearly four years. decades. Derocher did not participate in the study.
Since the 1980s, bear numbers in the region have dropped nearly 50%, the authors found. The ice essential to their survival is disappearing.
Polar bears depend on Arctic sea ice – frozen seawater – which shrinks in the summer with warmer temperatures and re-forms during the long winter. They use it for hunting, perching near holes in the thick ice to spot seals, their favorite food, coming for air. But because the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world due to climate change, sea ice is cracking earlier in the year and taking longer to freeze over in the fall.
This has left many polar bears that live in the Arctic with less ice on which to live, hunt and breed.
Polar bears are not only critical predators in the Arctic. For years, before climate change began to affect people around the world, they were also the most well-known face of climate change.
Researchers said the concentration of young and female bear deaths in western Hudson Bay is alarming.
“These are the types of bears that we always predicted would be affected by environmental change,” said lead author Stephen Atkinson, who has studied polar bears for more than 30 years.
Young bears need energy to grow and cannot survive for long periods without enough food and female bears struggle because they expend so much energy caring for and raising their offspring.
“It certainly raises questions about continued viability,” Derocher said. “It is the engine of reproduction of the population.”
The ability of western Hudson Bay polar bears to reproduce will decline, Atkinson said, “because you just have fewer young bears surviving and becoming adults.”
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