While Indigenous Knowledge research programs for polar bears in Alaska have not yet been fully developed, several publications have been produced related to Alaska’s two polar bear stocks. Efforts are currently either underway or in discussion to conduct additional Indigenous Knowledge research on both Southern Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea polar bears to inform integrated population models for both subpopulations.
Inupiaq Knowledge of Nanuq in the Southern Beaufort Sea
In the U.S., research on Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears is primarily conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a research agency within the Department of the Interior. USGS does not have regulatory authority over polar bears, but conducts research to inform polar bear management by the Inuvialuit-Iñupiat Joint Commission and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Much of this research is done in coordination with counterparts in Canada, in large part facilitated by collaboration under the Inuvialuit-Iñupiat Joint Commission process.
The most recent population estimate for Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears is ~900 in 2010, based data collected and analyzed from 2001-2010.
Research is currently underway to update the population estimate for Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. Ongoing efforts include analysis of data collected from 2001-2015 on the Alaska side of the population range. Biopsy mark-recapture studies are also continuing in both the U.S. and Canada. Planning is underway for an integrated population modeling effort for Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears.
Chukchi Sea Polar Bears
Research on Chukchi Sea polar bears in the U.S. is primarily conducted by the U.S. Fish & Willdlife Service (USFWS) and USFWS partners. Chukchi Sea polar bear research is largely coordinated through the Scientific Working Group (SWG) for the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission. Through the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement, collaborations between U.S. and Russian researchers are ongoing.
The most recent population estimate for Chukchi Sea polar bears is 2,937, based on a 10-year study published in 2018, utilizing an integrated population model.
Efforts are currently underway to analyze data from aerial surveys conducted in 2016, providing an additional population estimate. Planning is underway within the Scientific Working Group for the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission for continued Chukchi Sea polar bear research. U.S. researchers continue to partner with Russian scientists to observe Chukchi Sea polar bears on Wrangel Island annually, an important polar bear habitat area in Chukotka.
North Slope Borough Wildlife Department Polar Bear Research
The North Slope Borough (NSB) Wildlife Department also conducts polar bear research in Alaska, with NSB biologists and Indigenous Knowledge experts participating in collaborations through both the Inuvialuit-Iñupiat Joint Commission process and the Scientific Working Group for the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission.
Ongoing research by the NSB includes the development of non-invasive genetic sampling methods, such as hair snare boxes. Another effort, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other partners, is exploring the possibilities of collecting eDNA from polar bear footprints.
Polar Bears & Plastics
In partnership with the Inuvialuit Game Council, NSB researchers recently conducted a study on the impacts of consumption of plastic waste by polar bears. Based on the results of this study, outreach efforts are underway to reduce the prevalence of plastic waste in the arctic, and to continue to monitor this issue.
Radio Telemetry Ear Tag Development
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are currently partnering on a project to develop a radio telemetry ear tag to track polar bear movements. Movement data is an important component of modeling to develop more accurate population estimates. Currently, movement data is gathered using satellite collars. The Alaska Native community has been especially vocal about concerns related to satellite collars not properly falling off, and causing harm to bears. If feasible, the radio telemetry ear tag could provide a less invasive alternative to satellite collars for gathering movement data.
Harvest Data & Sampling
ANCC is currently developing a harvest monitoring program which would integrate collection of harvest data and biological samples from harvested bears. This program would also seek to collect local knowledge and observations from hunters to help inform co-management.
For more information on polar bear research and to access reports, please visit the USFWS, USGS, and NSB websites.