Real life polar bears are apex predators of the Arctic ecosystem, so don’t be deceived by the cute and cuddly depiction you see on ads.
Polar bears survive in really low temperatures that can be as cold as -45 degrees Celsius (-50 degrees Fahrenheit). The Arctic sea ice is their turf where they hunt for prey and play a huge role in providing food for scavenger species.
Polar bears are magnificent creatures but due to the effects of climate change, their existence is threatened.
If you want to know more about polar bears and the polar bear populations living in Alaska, you have come to the right page.
Are There Polar Bears In Alaska? Where you will see them
Yes, there are Polar bears in Alaska. Out of the nineteen polar bear populations, two are in Alaska. They are the Chukchi Sea population and the Southern Beaufort Sea population. Between 4,500 to 7,500 polar bears live in Alaska. The seasonal changes in sea ice are responsible for the changes in their habitat range through the year.
The Chuckchi Sea population can be found on the western end of Alaska. They go as far west as eastern Siberia and Wrangle Island. They also go as far south as the Bering Islands.
The Southern Beaufort Sea population can be found on the northern coast of Alaska. They span further east into the Beaufort Sea area of Canada. According to a 2014 study this population has reduced from more than 2,000 bears to between 900 to 1,500 bears.
There are behavioral traits that are displayed by some of the Beaufort Sea polar bears which are not common among polar bears. When pack ice recedes in the summer, they go to the beaches and remain there till the pack ice comes back in the fall.
Let us now take a look at the generally known seasonal distribution of Alaskan polar bears.
In spring, female polar bears come out from their winter dens. Majority of bears move with the pack ice and hunt for seals from there.
When it is summer, the ice recedes and most of the bears follow it. They move northward but there are still some that will stay on the northern coastline.
In the fall, the distribution is determined by ice and seal availability. They can go as far south as the Bering islands if they will have food and if the temperature is conducive.
When it is winter, the females den for the season. They do this along the northern coastline, islands in the Canadian Artic, Spitsbergen, Greenland, Wrangel Island as well as other Russian Islands. During this time, male polar bears can be seen as far south as St. Lawrence Island.
Generally, the population of polar bears in Alaska is reducing. Their range and hunting grounds are reducing due to a decline in the amount of sea ice.
Polar Bear Management and Hunting In Alaska
Polar bears are a very important part of the native Alaskan people. Until 1942, subsistence hunters were the only ones hunting polar bears for their meat and hides. That is not to say that the bears are seen as staple food.
Only about thirty bears a year were killed as a result of these hunting activities and this is even less than a US quota limit that was implemented around 2016. Native groups were responsible for managing themselves and they limited their hunting for leaner years.
But from 1942, some other groups began hunting polar bears for sports. Up until 1972, sport hunters would hunt the bears but they would not go for cubs or females with cubs.
In 1959, the statehood act came to be and it made some stipulations and regulations that should be adhered to with regards to the hunting activities. Data had to be collected and deliberations made before decisions were reached on the rules to be put in place.
Richard Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) into law in 1972. This law put a ban on the taking of marine mammals for whatever reason. There was also placed a cessation of undefined length on the export, import or sale of marine mammals or derivative products. However, there was no ban on the harvest of marine mammals by the native people or by subsistence farmers.
This Marine Mammal Protection Act covers not just polar bears, but seals, whales and other marine mammals, providing them with much needed protection.
The term “taking animals” in this case refers to the harassment, hunting, capturing or killing of any marine mammal. Harassment here means any act that can injure a marine mammal or cause a disruption of its behavioral patterns. Examples of these behavioral patterns include nursing, migration, feeding, sheltering, breeding, and of course breathing.
But for every general rule there is an exception and this Act also has exceptions. Permits can be issued for the importation and exportation of marine mammal parts, public display and scientific research.
Since the implementation of the MMPA, it is illegal to hunt polar bears for sport.
Northern Canada has the highest number of the world’s polar bear population. A 1973 multilateral Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears made provision for Inuit hunters and trophy hunters to hunt up to 600 bears each year.
The hunters are guided by Inuit guides. But the number permitted is not steady as this is changed each year depending on the scientific data.
But in 2008, after polar bears were categorized as threatened species, trophy hunting was no more allowed. Also, a lot of effort has gone into locating denning areas and protecting them. These areas are mapped out and environmental protections rolled out. Oil, gas, and mineral extraction are usually not allowed in these regions.
Polar Bear Populations in Alaska National Parks
There are two national parks where you can see magnificent polar bears via wildlife cameras or in person if you so please. They are the Cape Krusenstern National Monument and the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. These parks have polar bears within their borders.
Biology of Polar Bears
The body of polar bears is in such a way that they can survive the Arctic. These animals are really huge. When on their four legs their height is at 5.3 feet (1.6 meters) and when standing on their hind legs they have a height of up to 7.8 feet (2.4 meters).
A female polar bear usually weighs about 150 to 295 kg (330 to 650 lb.) while a male polar bear usually weighs 350 to 600 kg (775 to 1,300 lb.). Now you can understand why we chose to describe the bears with the word huge. However, they have shortened ears and tails.
As to how they are able to live in such a cold area, there are two thick layers of fur covering their body. These layers of fur do a very good job of preventing heat loss, so much so that the bears can feel overheated just from short sprints.
Unlike what you may most likely assume, the hairs on their body are not white, rather they are transparent. They appear white due to the hairs ability to scatter and reflect light.
It is not just the layers of fur that keep the bears warm, they also have a fat layer that is up to 11.4 cm (4.49 in) thick. While the fur does the job of keeping them warm when they are dry, the fat keeps them warm when they are in the water.
Do you wonder how they are able to swim? Their massive 30 cm (11.81 in) paws which enable them distribute their weight well on ice also functions as paddles when they swim. Their footpad does a great job of giving them much needed traction so they don’t slip. There is also their 5 cm (1.97 in) long claws that does not just help with traction but is also very useful when it comes to holding onto their prey.
The diet of polar bears is mostly comprised of seals, particularly bearded and ringed seals. Did you know that a single bear can consume more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of blubber at a go. Polar bears are very dependent on seals due to the high-calorie fat on the seal’s bodies and also because there is no much option available to them.
Seals cut holes in the sea ice so they can pop up for air every five to fifteen minutes. Polar bears find these holes and wait patiently for the seals to come up to breath and then they pounce on them. The bears can wait anywhere from hours to even days to be able to catch a seal.
They also catch seals basking on the ice. They will slowly and quietly move towards the seal, stopping when the seal looks their way and continuing when it looks away. Their white fur serves as a good camouflage and when they are close enough to the seal, they speed up and catch it.
Although the bears are really good swimmers, the seals will beat them at it. So they take advantage of the sea ice to catch the seals.
If there is no food scarcity, the polar bears may just eat the blubber and skin of the seal, abandoning the remaining meat on the ice. Scavenger species like ravens will then eat the rest. Also, bears that have not been able to make a catch can have something to eat.
Although seals are the major component of the polar bears diet, they also eat other foods such as small mammals, eggs, geese, walruses and washed-up whales. A walrus or washed-up whale can provide a polar bear with the needed calories but the other foods (geese, eggs, small mammals) do not. Those one are what they eat when there is no other choice.
Polar Bear Location Range
The sea ice determines the location range of the polar bears. When the ice expands in the winter the range of the bears expands and when the ice shrinks in the summer, their range also reduces.
You can find polar bears on the sea ice around certain countries. They include Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway (Svalbard) and U.S (Alaska). Researchers have categorized them into nineteen populations and some span across more than one of the mentioned countries.
There are different factors that determine how far a bear can travel. These factors include the availability of seals for food, quantity of sea ice, as well as the quality of sea ice. Most bears don’t go beyond 100 kilometers ( 62. 13 miles) from their original home, but there are some that can travel for thousands of miles from their home.
Polar Bear Life Cycle
The lifespan of polar bears is usually between 15 to 18 years. But there have been some that has gotten over the age of thirty.
The sea ice is their domain where they stand as the unchallenged apex predator outside the water. They spend their lives hunting for seals on sea ice.
They are typically solitary animals and display seasonal behavior. The seasonal behavior that they exhibit is seen more in females.
Mating in polar bears happen in spring, between April and June. The male polar bears track the scent and footprints of the female polar bears out on the sea ice. The males leave the females and continue on their own a few days after they have mated.
Although the mating occurs in spring, the fertilized eggs in the female polar bear will not implant until fall. This is known as delayed implantation. What determines whether or not the fertilized eggs will implant is the female polar bear’s fat stores. She has to be able to sustain herself and her pups through the winter.
The mother polar bears will consume as much as they can through the summer and fall so that they can build up their fat stores. Before the winter sets in proper, they will dig a burrow into a snowdrift, go inside it and allow the falling snow to block the entrance.
The expecting polar bear will stay in this den and give birth to her cubs. It usually is between one to three cubs and they will remain in the den till spring. For the period that they are in the den, the mother polar bear will not eat anything, drink or even step out of the den.
During that time, the baby bears who by the way are blind and toothless are completely dependent on their mothers. They will keep nursing from their mother for the first 20 months of their life. Newborn cubs weigh just about one pound or half a kilogram.
The baby bears learn their survival skills from their mother. For their first two-and-a-half to three years, their mother watches over and protects them.
Polar bears attain adulthood when they have reached the age of mating. For the females this is between ages 4 to 6 while for the males, it is between ages 6 to 10.
Polar bears reach adulthood when they’re ready to mate. In females, this is usually between ages 4 to 6 and for males between ages 6 to 10.
Frequent Asked Questions for Polar Bears in Alaska
How many polar bears are in Alaska?
Between 4,500 to 7,500 polar bears live in Alaska.