Environment

Scientists map the Canadian Arctic’s polar bear dens


If you wanted to know which places the polar bears of Canada consider to be prime real estate, here’s a map. There are more than 1,500 den locations plotted.

The map – see below – cannot hope to provide exact locations of bears, and only provides very broad locations for their dens. But it does give the clearest picture yet of where Canada’s polar bears tend to build their homes.

Researchers created the map using historical and current den locations found in traditional knowledge, government and consultant reports, previous peer-reviewed studies, and some unpublished data gathered from various jurisdictions.

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The work was funded by WWF-Canada and created in partnership with Manitoba’s Assiniboine Park Conservancy and the University of British Columbia.

The scientists believe knowing where polar bears currently set up their dens may help humans find better ways to help and manage the bears as their habitat changes and, in some cases, is destroyed.

Researchers said they were intrigued by gaps that emerged as the map was completed.

“Most coastal regions in northern Canada supported denning, but large areas exist where denning is unreported,” the 10 scientists wrote in an abstract of their work, published in the journal Polar Biology.

“Gaps remain in the knowledge of polar bear denning in Canada and filling these will aid the conservation and management of polar bears in a changing Arctic.”

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Polar bear den map

This map shows female polar bears’ maternity dens (blue dots) and denning areas (blue shaded regions) in the Canadian Arctic. Note that these are only the dens for which some form of record exists – other dens may well be out there but not marked on the map.

Polar bears usually make their dens in the fall in snow banks or peat deposits. When they have to, they’ll find a way to den on sea ice where enough snow exists.

The usual human impacts, like ice roads, can disturb the bears’ denning plans. So can changes in their environment – for example, the increasing severity of forest fires is known to be melting permafrost in areas of peat, which can destroy some of the places polar bears like to set up home.

In total, the scientists identified 1,593 separate polar bear den locations from 64 different sources.

The map shows the bears love Manitoba and Wapusk National Park in particular.

When it comes to the Arctic coast of the Northwest Territories, the map shows maybe 30 to 40 den locations clinging to the coast of the Canadian mainland, with many more dens surrounding the shores of Banks Island around Sachs Harbour.

The researchers acknowledged that some gaps in the data might mean either there wasn’t enough information or bears don’t often den in those areas.

“While we recognize that polar bears may den in areas not identified by our research, the Canadian Arctic has been widely studied and … we think that major denning areas have not been overlooked,” they added.

A third of all den data came from traditional knowledge sources, the researchers said, proving to them “the importance of including and recording the knowledge of species held in Indigenous communities.”

They concluded by calling for more monitoring of polar bear dens across the Canadian Arctic.

“Continued or increased monitoring could provide insight to the response of female polar bears to habitat changes and increased human activity,” the researchers wrote.

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