It’s Hard to Protect Arctic Mammals When We Don’t Know How Many Live There

Only a handful of animal populations are well counted — leaving researchers in the dark about how threatened the others are

Walruses in Svalbard Olaf Krüger/imageBROKER/Corbis

Polar bears, walruses and belugas are just a few of the large, ionic mammals that rely on the icy remoteness of the Arctic to survive. As the climate changes and sea ice melts, it becomes more apparent that their populations will be affected: Belugas are now infected by a parasite typically found in cats, the risk for polar bears is great enough that they are an unofficial symbol of threatened species, walruses are stampeding on beaches when they can’t find ice and unusual hybrid animals are becoming more common. These are signs of a system out of balance.

But to understand exactly what is going on, scientists need numbers—they must be able to say with certainty that certain animal populations are declining, dying out or hanging on. That’s where things get tricky. According to a new study, published in Conservation Biology, we just don’t have enough data to figure out what’s going on with 51 of the 78 known subpopulations of Arctic mammals. Of the 27 we can figure out, eight are declining (including groups of polar bears and seals); ten are actually increasing (including bowhead whales and walruses); and nine are stable. 

That leaves a lot of information missing. So when one company or another looks to drill for oil in the Arctic, researchers can’t offer evidence whether that action will irrevocably harm animals living there or not. Likewise, they can’t set well-informed limits for hunts for narwhals or other animals —  an important part of life for indigenous populations. For Science, Virginia Gewin writes:

That data gap highlights the difficult task facing governments interested in managing the Arctic ecosystem, the researchers say. Still, “pulling together this big picture is a hugely important step for management agencies,” says Rosa Meehan, a retired chief of marine mammal management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska, and chair of a panel that is advising the multinational Arctic Council on conservation issues. Past studies have focused on a single species, place, or industry, she notes, “but this lays everything out on the table … we can start to see overlapping patterns, which will help us identify areas at greatest risk of most extreme change.”

Managing the animal populations is even more difficult because conservationists’ options are limited. Large animals like whales cannot be moved to other areas or bred easily. All that can be done is protecting the habitat they do have and working to minimize man-made stressors like noise and pollution. One idea is to preserve an area in the Arctic where the summer sea ice seems to remain when all else melts seasonally. The World Wildlife Foundation calls this the "Last Ice Area," and it may be the last hope for Arctic animals.

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