Scientists tracking Beaufort polar bears by air

Scientists have never before tried the method to count polar bear populations. They say it is less invasive than the traditional trapping and tagging methods.

Governments of N.W.T., Yukon and Alaska trying out method deemed less invasive

Scientists are trying out a new, potentially less invasive, approach to count polar bears in the southern Beaufort region.

The Governments of the Northwest Territories and Yukon have teamed up with Alaska on a pilot project to track the animals using helicopters.

For the last week, scientists have been using the helicopters to scan the area to see if it’s a viable way to estimate the bears’ population. This method has not been used before for polar bear population counts.

Scientists are changing up their methods to use less invasive tracking techniques. Many currently use the ‘mark and recapture’ method, where biologists trap, drug and then tag the animals. This method takes three to four years to get a population estimate.

The new method by helicopter is supposed to be less invasive, and take less time.

"[It is] going to take a lot of effort if we decide to go this way. But it if it will work, it will be less handling on the bears, less stressful on the bears, and you should be able to do it in one year - do a lot of work and come up with a population estimate that year," said Marsha Branigan, the manager of Wildlife Management for the Inuvik Region.

Branigan says the pilot project is more expensive, but she says the aerials will give more immediate results than the three to four years it takes for the traditional tagging and trapping method.

She added that they are not very concerned about the impact the helicopters could have on the bears. Branigan said that while they will have an impact, the helicopters’ disturbance of the bears will be less stressful overall than the tagging method.

Once the team has the information, they will present it to the Inuvialuit-Inupiat Polar Bear management agreement’s joint commissioners. From there, they will weigh the benefits of both methods.

So far, Branigan says there are indications that climate change and retreating sea ice are having an effect on the bears’ population, which she says is declining.