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Assessment of Abundance for the Gulf of Boothia Polar Bear Subpopulation Using Genetic Mark-Recapture

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are managed across Nunavut, Canada, under a quota system that seeks to ensure harvest is sustainable. In recent decades, climatic changes across the Arctic have altered polar bear habitat at unprecedented rates. To retain viable polar bear subpopulations as part of the ecosystem ensure continued availability of a subsistence resource for Inuit, scientific research and monitoring studies are conducted to evaluate subpopulation status and whether management objectives are being met. Here we report the results of a population study for polar bears inhabiting the Gulf of Boothia (GB) conducted 2015 – 2017. Current samples were collected using less-invasive genetic biopsy darting without immobilizing or physically handling bears. Our analyses included 2015 – 2017 biopsy sampling data, live-capture data collected under a designed study 1998 – 2000, live-capture data collected opportunistically 1976 – 1997, and harvest recovery data over the entire period 1976 – 2017. Results of live-capture dead-recovery models fitted in Program MARK suggest that a mean abundance estimate of 1525 (standard error [SE] = 294) for the period 2015 – 2017 was similar to mean abundance in 1998 – 2000 (1610 [SE = 266] in this study; 1592 [SE = 361] in Taylor et al. [2009]). Mean cub-of-the-year and yearling litter sizes for the period 2015 – 2017 were 1.61 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.51 – 1.70) and 1.53 (95% CI = 1.41 – 1.64), respectively, with no apparent trend compared to 1998 – 2000. The mean number of yearlings per adult female for the period 2015 – 2017 was 0.36 (95% CI = 0.26 – 0.47) which suggests that GB is currently a productive polar bear subpopulation, despite sea ice change. This is consistent with our finding that polar bear body condition (i.e., fatness) in the spring increased between the periods 1998 – 2000 and 2015 – 2017. We detected sex- and age-specific variation in total survival rate (i.e., including harvest mortality) with higher estimates for adult females (0.95; 95% CI = 0.81 – 0.99) than adult males (0.85; 95% CI = 0.74 – 0.92) for the period 2005 – 2017. A potentially related effect was detected as an increase in the proportional abundance of females from 0.57 in 1998 – 2000 to 0.61 in 2015 – 2017. The asymptotic, intrinsic population growth rate calculated using a matrix projection model with estimates of total survival was 0.06 (95% CI = -0.06 – 0.12) for the period 2005 – 2017, suggesting strong potential for growth. However, our results for subpopulation size and trend should be interpreted with caution because our estimate of abundance reflects the “superpopulation” (e.g., it includes all bears that use the GB management area, some of which spend time in other subpopulations as well) and our estimate of population growth rate does not account for permanent emigration from the GB management area.

Overall, our findings suggest that the demographic status of the GB subpopulation is currently healthy, although we recommend that lower estimates of total and un-harvested survival for male bears warrant further investigation. We hypothesize that spatial and temporal reductions in sea ice may have provided transient benefits to the GB subpopulation due to increased biological productivity. Climate change is the primary long-term threat to polar bears and the threshold beyond which the GB subpopulation could be negatively affected by continued ice loss, like some other polar bear subpopulations, is currently unknown. This study represents the second structured population assessment in 22 years for the GB subpopulation. Based on experience garnered through this study and analysis, we submit several recommendations for consideration when planning future polar bear population studies. We suggest collecting additional data at approximately the midpoint between planned subpopulation assessments. In this case, that equals approximately 5 – 7 years from the 2017 completion of field work. Additionally, while the recommendation for movement data is not new, it continues to be highly recommended for subpopulations with known exchanges of bears between areas. In the absence of satellite telemetry data on polar bear movements, conducting a meta-analysis to investigate exchange between GB and nearby subpopulations (i.e., Lancaster Sound, GB, and M’Clintock Channel) may help alleviate some of the uncertainty around individual subpopulation estimates for these areas. Finally, when time, resources, and management objectives warrant it, we recommend conducting a quantitative harvest risk assessment to inform sustainable harvest levels.