Loss of sea ice due to global warming may affect the phenology and distribution of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) denning by altering access to denning habitats. We examined trends in the selection of maternal denning substrate (land versus sea-ice denning) in the southern Beaufort Sea (SB), addressing the potential influence of summer land-use and fall sea-ice conditions on substrate selection. We developed an algorithm based on statistical process control methods to remotely identify denning bears and estimate denning phenology from temperature sensor data collected on collars deployed 1985–2013 in the SB and Chukchi Sea (CS). We evaluated cub survival relative to den entrance, emergence, and duration, and examined differences in the phenology of land and sea-ice dens. Land denning in the SB was more common during years when ice retreated farther from the coast and off of the continental shelf in September. All SB bears that occupied land prior to denning subsequently denned on land; however, only 29% of denning bears that summered on sea ice denned on land. Den entrance and duration in the SB and CS were similar, although CS bears emerged later. Land dens were occupied longer than those on ice. Bears later observed with cubs remained in dens 23 days longer and emerged from denning 17 days later on average than bears that denned but were subsequently observed without cubs, suggesting that den exit dates are related to cub survival. The increase in land-based denning in the SB when sea ice retreated farther from shore, along with the positive correlation between fall land-use and land denning, suggest that further sea-ice declines may result in continued increases of onshore denning. Growing numbers of denning females along the coast may increase the potential for human-bear interactions.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



Date Submitted


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polar bear, Ursus martimus, den, sea ice, phenology, Alaska, southern Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea