Remote Identification of Polar Bear Maternal Den Habitat in Northern Alaska

  • George M. Durner
  • Steven C. Amstrup
  • Ken J. Ambrosius
Keywords: aerial photography, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, den habitat, maternal den, photo interpretation, National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, polar bear, Prudhoe Bay, Ursus maritimus


Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) give birth in dens of ice and snow to protect their altricial young. During the snow-free season, we visited 25 den sites located previously by radiotelemetry and characterized the den site physiognomy. Seven dens occurred in habitats with minimal relief. Eighteen dens (72%) were in coastal and river banks. These "banks" were identifiable on aerial photographs. We then searched high-resolution aerial photographs (n=3000) for habitats similar to those of the 18 dens. On aerial photos, we mapped 1782 km of bank habitats suitable for denning. Bank habitats comprised 0.18% of our study area between the Colville River and the Tamayariak River in northern Alaska. The final map, which correctly identified 88% of bank denning habitat in this region, will help minimize the potential for disruptions of maternal dens by winter petroleum exploration activities.