Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Effects of capturing and collaring on polar bears: findings from long-term research on the southern Beaufort Sea population

Karyn D. Rode A C , Anthony M. Pagano A , Jeffrey F. Bromaghin A , Todd C. Atwood A , George M. Durner A , Kristin S. Simac A and Steven C. Amstrup B

A U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center, 4210 University Drive, Anchorage, AK 99508, USA.

B Polar Bears International, PO Box 3008, Bozeman, MT 59772, USA.

C Corresponding author. Email: krode@usgs.gov

Wildlife Research 41(4) 311-322 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR13225
Submitted: 21 December 2013  Accepted: 9 September 2014   Published: 16 December 2014

Abstract

Context: The potential for research methods to affect wildlife is an increasing concern among both scientists and the public. This topic has a particular urgency for polar bears because additional research is needed to monitor and understand population responses to rapid loss of sea ice habitat.

Aims: This study used data collected from polar bears sampled in the Alaska portion of the southern Beaufort Sea to investigate the potential for capture to adversely affect behaviour and vital rates. We evaluated the extent to which capture, collaring and handling may influence activity and movement days to weeks post-capture, and body mass, body condition, reproduction and survival over 6 months or more.

Methods: We compared post-capture activity and movement rates, and relationships between prior capture history and body mass, body condition and reproductive success. We also summarised data on capture-related mortality.

Key results: Individual-based estimates of activity and movement rates reached near-normal levels within 2–3 days and fully normal levels within 5 days post-capture. Models of activity and movement rates among all bears had poor fit, but suggested potential for prolonged, lower-level rate reductions. Repeated captures was not related to negative effects on body condition, reproduction or cub growth or survival. Capture-related mortality was substantially reduced after 1986, when immobilisation drugs were changed, with only 3 mortalities in 2517 captures from 1987–2013.

Conclusions: Polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea exhibited the greatest reductions in activity and movement rates 3.5 days post-capture. These shorter-term, post-capture effects do not appear to have translated into any long-term effects on body condition, reproduction, or cub survival. Additionally, collaring had no effect on polar bear recovery rates, body condition, reproduction or cub survival.

Implications: This study provides empirical evidence that current capture-based research methods do not have long-term implications, and are not contributing to observed changes in body condition, reproduction or survival in the southern Beaufort Sea. Continued refinement of capture protocols, such as the use of low-impact dart rifles and reversible drug combinations, might improve polar bear response to capture and abate short-term reductions in activity and movement post-capture.

Additional keywords: activity, body condition, capture effects, handling effects, movement rates.


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