Polar bears west of Canada’s Hudson Bay, at the southern tip of the Arctic, are still dying in droves, according to a new government study on the terrestrial carnivore. The greatest difficulties are experienced by female bears and cubs.
Researchers conducted an aerial survey of the western Hudson Bay region in 2021, and estimated there were 618 bears, compared to 842 in 2016, when the population was last surveyed.
“The actual decline is much larger than I expected,” said Andrew Desrocher, a professor of biology at the University of Alberta who has studied polar bears in Hudson Bay for nearly four decades. Derocher was not involved in the study.
According to the authors, since the 1980s the number of bears in the area has declined by nearly 50%. The ice, which is essential to their survival, is disappearing.
Polar bears depend on Arctic sea ice, the surface area of which shrinks in the summer as temperatures rise and re-forms in the long winter. They use it to hunt, perching near holes in the thick ice to spot seals—their favorite food—when they take up for air. But with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the world due to climate change, sea ice is breaking up earlier than usual and taking longer to freeze by the end of the year.
This has left polar bears – the nineteen groups that live in the Arctic – with little ice on which they can survive, hunt and reproduce.
Researchers say the concentration of deaths of young bears and females in western Hudson Bay is alarming. Young bears need energy to grow and cannot survive for long periods without enough food, and female bears suffer because they spend so much energy nursing and raising their young.
According to the study, the finding confirms what scientists predicted could happen to species as more of their habitats are destroyed.
“It certainly raises issues of viability,” says Derocher. “This is the reproductive driver of the population.”
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