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A novel mark-recapture-recovery survey using genetic sampling for polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in Baffin Bay

Stephen N. Atkinson*, Kristin L. Laidre, Todd W. Arnold, Seth Stapleton, Eric V. Regehr, Erik W. Born, Øystein Wiig, Markus Dyck, Nicholas J. Lunn, Harry L. Stern, David Paetkau

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Changes in sea-ice dynamics are affecting polar bears (Ursus maritimus) across their circumpolar range, which highlights the importance of periodic demographic assessments to inform management and conservation. We used genetic mark-recapture-recovery to derive estimates of abundance and survival for the Baffin Bay (BB) polar bear subpopulation — the first time this method has been used successfully for this species. Genetic data from tissue samples we collected via biopsy darting were combined with historical physical capture and harvest recovery data. The combined dataset consisted of 1410 genetic samples (2011–2013), 914 physical captures (1993–1995, 1997), and 234 harvest returns of marked bears (1993–2013). The estimate of mean subpopulation abundance was 2826 (95% CI = 2284–3367) in 2012–2013. Estimates of annual survival were 0.90 (SE 0.05) and 0.78 (SE 0.06) for females and males age ≥2 years, respectively. The proportion of total mortality of adult females and males that was attributed to legal harvest was 0.16 (SE 0.05) and 0.26 (SE 0.06), respectively. Remote sensing sea-ice data, telemetry data, and spatial distribution of onshore sampling indicated that polar bears were more likely to use offshore sea-ice habitat during the 1990s sampling period compared to the 2010s. Furthermore, in the 1990s, sampling of deep fjords and inland areas was limited, and no offshore sampling occurred in either time period, which precluded comparisons of abundance between the 1993–1997 and 2011–2013 study periods. Our findings demonstrate that genetic sampling can be a practical method for demographic assessment of polar bears over large spatial and temporal scales.