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Crockford SJ.2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)PeerJ Preprints5:e2737v2https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v2
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was the first species to be classified as threatened with extinction based on predictions of future conditions rather than current status. These predictions were made using expert-opinion forecasts of population declines linked to modeled habitat loss – first by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List in 2006, and then by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), based on data collected to 2005 and 2006, respectively. Both assessments predicted significant population declines of polar bears would result by mid-century as a consequence of summer sea ice extent rapidly reaching 3-5 mkm2 on a regular basis: the IUCN predicted a >30% decline in total population, while the USFWS predicted the global population would decline by 67% (including total extirpation of ten subpopulations within two vulnerable ecoregions). Biologists involved in these conservation assessments had to make several critical assumptions about how polar bears might be affected by future habitat loss, since sea ice conditions predicted to occur by 2050 had not occurred prior to 2006. However, summer sea ice declines have been much faster than expected: low ice levels not expected until mid-century (about 3-5 mkm2) have occurred regularly since 2007. Realization of predicted sea ice levels allows the ‘rapid sea ice decline = population decline’ assumption for polar bears to be treated as a testable hypothesis. Data collected between 2007 and 2015 reveal that polar bear numbers have not declined as predicted and no subpopulation has been extirpated. Several subpopulations expected to be at high risk of decline remained stable and five showed increases in population size. Another at-risk subpopulation was not counted but showed marked improvement in reproductive parameters and body condition with less summer ice. As a consequence, the hypothesis that repeated summer sea ice levels of below 5 mkm2 will cause significant population declines in polar bears is rejected, a result that indicates the ESA and IUCN judgments to list polar bears as threatened based on future risks of habitat loss were scientifically unfounded and that similar predictions for Arctic seals and walrus may be likewise flawed. The lack of a demonstrable ‘rapid sea ice decline = population decline’ relationship for polar bears also potentially invalidates updated survival model outputs that predict catastrophic population declines should the Arctic become ice-free in summer.
Version 2 has been updated with data from a recently completed population size survey of Baffin Bay and Kane Basin, Canada (SWG 2016) that significantly strengthens the argument presented in the paper. Also, a recent estimate for the Barents Sea has been added, based on a survey completed in 2015.