ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Polar bears around the Beaufort Sea appear to be thriving, according to a leading researcher. Residents of the area say they've also noticed more bears.
Steven Amstrup, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Science Center, told an environmental forum last week that the population could be at an hitoric high.
The population is benefiting from the near-complete ban on polar bear hunting for the past three decades, Amstrup said. But other factors may be involved such as changes in the weather, ice pack or number of ringed seals, the bears' favorite food.
Whatever the reasons, Amstrup said, ''the population seems to be in really good shape right now.''
He estimates the number of polar bears occupying the Beaufort Sea ice between Barrow and the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula of Canada may exceed 2,500. Earrlier estimates indicated about 700 fewer bears.
The population has apparently increased at more than 2 percent a year for the past three decades, Amstrup told the Alaska Forum on the Environment.
Villagers along the North Slope have also noticed more bears and for the past several years have been patrolling the perimeters of settlements in fall and early winter.
Kaktovik Mayor Lon Sonsalla said that over the past few years, aggregations of 20 to 40 bears have come near his village on the Arctic Coast and some have even come into town.
''I believe in what the scientists are saying,'' said Charlie Brower, chairman of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission. (''Nanuuq'' means ''polar bear'' in Inupiaq). ''But I don't know why. All I know is their numbers are growing.''
REduced hunting pressure is likely a factor. In 1972, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and actions by Alaska simultaneously banned aerial hunting and sport hunting of polar bears. In the years before, an average of more than 260 bears were being shot each year in Alaska.
Polar bear hunting is now limited to Alaska Natives living along the coast. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an average of 100 bears were killed in Alaska annually during the 1990s.
Last year, the United States and Russia signed a treaty governing the take of polar bears off Alaska's west and northwest coasts. The treaty affects the Beaufort bears and another population of 3,000 to 5,000 polar bears that roam west of Point Barrow to the Kolyma River and as far south as St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
Rising temperatures may be helping Alaska's bears.
In the Beaufort, less persistent and thinner ice allows more solar radiation to enter the cold waters, which should increase biological productivity, Amstrup said. That could cause the ringed seal population to rise. Continuing thinning of the Beaufort Sea ice, however, could make it harder for the bears to catch seals.
Amstrup also said bears seem to be hanging around whale bone piles more persistently than they used to in areas such as Kaktovik and Cross Island.
''Whether there are just more bears to show up at bone piles or whether bone piles are helping to make more bears is yet to be determined,'' he said.
Sonsalla of Kaktovik said the bears appear to know when the fall whaling season starts and show up just in time to feed on the bones. ''It just seems to be something they are setting their clocks to,'' he said.
Even if there are more bears, Amstrup said, the population should still be managed conservatively. Polar bears reproduce slowly, not maturing until they are 6 years old and producing just two cubs per litter.
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