Harvesting wildlife affected by climate change: a modelling and management approach for polar bears

Last modified: 
March 17, 2017 - 5:02pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2017
Date published: 03/2017
Authors: Eric Regehr, Ryan Wilson, Karyn Rode, Michael Runge, Harry Stern
Journal title: Journal of Applied Ecology
  1. The conservation of many wildlife species requires understanding the demographic effects of climate change, including interactions between climate change and harvest, which can provide cultural, nutritional or economic value to humans.
  2. We present a demographic model that is based on the polar bear Ursus maritimus life cycle and includes density-dependent relationships linking vital rates to environmental carrying capacity (K). Using this model, we develop a state-dependent management framework to calculate a harvest level that (i) maintains a population above its maximum net productivity level (MNPL; the population size that produces the greatest net increment in abundance) relative to a changing K, and (ii) has a limited negative effect on population persistence.
  3. Our density-dependent relationships suggest that MNPL for polar bears occurs at approximately 0·69 (95% CI = 0·63–0·74) of K. Population growth rate at MNPL was approximately 0·82 (95% CI = 0·79–0·84) of the maximum intrinsic growth rate, suggesting relatively strong compensation for human-caused mortality.
  4. Our findings indicate that it is possible to minimize the demographic risks of harvest under climate change, including the risk that harvest will accelerate population declines driven by loss of the polar bear's sea-ice habitat. This requires that (i) the harvest rate – which could be 0 in some situations – accounts for a population's intrinsic growth rate, (ii) the harvest rate accounts for the quality of population data (e.g. lower harvest when uncertainty is large), and (iii) the harvest level is obtained by multiplying the harvest rate by an updated estimate of population size. Environmental variability, the sex and age of removed animals and risk tolerance can also affect the harvest rate.
  5. Synthesis and applications. We present a coupled modelling and management approach for wildlife that accounts for climate change and can be used to balance trade-offs among multiple conservation goals. In our example application to polar bears experiencing sea-ice loss, the goals are to maintain population viability while providing continued opportunities for subsistence harvest. Our approach may be relevant to other species for which near-term management is focused on human factors that directly influence population dynamics within the broader context of climate-induced habitat degradation.
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