Safeguarding Polar Bears’ Maternal Dens

I joined Dr. Todd J. Brinkman, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Institute of Arctic Biology & Department of Biology and Wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and his graduate student Nils Pedersen on an amazing field research trip to see their ground-breaking work. By using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with FLIR (a thermographic camera to identify heat images), in Arctic Alaska, we are able to identify and map maternal polar bear and brown bear dens. Currently, polar bear dens are mapped using fixed wing planes equipped with FLIR cameras. UAV technology will save time and money, allowing polar bear researchers and others to record heat images of bears and their young deep under the snow and map more coastal area — which helps us better protect these an Arctic icon and its habitat. The den location and mapping data from the UAV equipped with an FLIR camera was ground-truthed using a highly trained Karelian Bear Dog (KBD) from the Wind River Bear Institute.

Optimizing a technique for detecting and monitoring polar bear dens in the Arctic is critically important to identify where polar bears den each winter so we can keep people, ice roads and other development a safe distance away as well as to understanding where female polar bears den and how those locations are faring or changing with the impacts of climate change. Previously, female polar reliably used maternal den locations and these maternal dens are the basis for much of the critical habitat which we supported during the critical habitat designation process.

This work is key in allowing us to more completely undertake population counts and to be able to identify maternal polar bear dens. Defenders is proud to be a part of this and future research since cost effective tools and methods are critical to helping us understand the vast Arctic ecosystem and large Arctic species like the polar bear and the Pacific walrus.

- Karla