Iñupiaq Knowledge of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Southern Beaufort Sea, Alaska
Keywords:Alaska; Indigenous knowledge; Iñupiaq; nanuq; polar bears; Ursus maritimus
Successful wildlife management depends upon coordination and consultation with local communities. However, much of the research used to inform management is often derived solely from data collected directly from wildlife. Indigenous people living in the Arctic have a close connection to their environment, which provides unique opportunities to observe their environment and the ecology of Arctic species. Further, most northern Arctic communities occur within the range of polar bears (nanuq, Ursus maritimus) and have experienced significant climatic changes. Here, we used semi-structured interviews from 2017 to 2019 to document Iñupiaq knowledge of polar bears observed over four decades in four Alaskan communities in the range of the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear subpopulation: Wainwright, Utqiaġvik, Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik. All but one of 47 participants described directional and notable changes in sea ice, including earlier ice breakup, later ice return, thinner ice, and less multiyear pack ice. These changes corresponded with observations of bears spending more time on land during the late summer and early fall in recent decades—observations consistent with scientific and Indigenous knowledge studies in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Participants noted that polar bear and seal body condition and local abundance either varied geographically or exhibited no patterns. However, participants described a recent phenomenon of bears being exhausted and lethargic when arriving on shore in the summer and fall after extensive swims from the pack ice. Further, several participants suggested that maternal denning is occurring more often on land than sea ice. Participants indicated that village and regional governments are increasingly challenged to obtain resources needed to keep their communities safe as polar bears spend more time on land, an issue that is likely to be exacerbated both in this region and elsewhere as sea ice loss continues.
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