Seismic Survey Design and Effects on Maternal Polar Bear Dens

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Large-scale industrial activities can have negative effects on wildlife populations. Some of these effects, however, could be reduced with effective planning prior to development. The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in northeastern Alaska, USA, is an important maternal denning area for polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Recent legislation has opened the area for potential oil and gas development. As a result, there is interest in conducting winter seismic surveys across the area that could disturb denning female polar bears and lead to decreased cub survival. We sought to demonstrate how different seismic survey designs, with and without aerial den detection surveys, could affect the level of potential effect on denning polar bears during spring (Feb–Apr). We developed 5 hypothetical seismic survey designs for a portion of the Coastal Plain ranging from no spatial or temporal restrictions on activities to explicit consideration of when and where operations can occur. We evaluated how many dens might be disturbed by seismic surveys and the average distance activity came within simulated polar bear dens. Survey design had a large effect on the estimated number of dens that could be disturbed; the scenario with the highest spatial and temporal specificity reduced the number of dens disturbed by >90% compared to the scenario with no restrictions on when and where activity could occur. The use of an aerial den detection survey prior to seismic activity further reduced the number of dens disturbed by 68% across all scenarios. The scenario with the highest spatial and temporal specificity always had the lowest level of disturbance for all scenarios with and without the aerial survey included. Our study suggests that large reductions in the probability of disturbance can occur through careful planning on the timing and distribution of proposed activities even when surveys are planned in areas with a high density of polar bear dens. Published 2019. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA. The Journal of Wildlife Management published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of The Wildlife Society.




Wilson, R. R., & Durner, G. M. (2020). Seismic Survey Design and Effects on Maternal Polar Bear Dens. Journal of Wildlife Management, 84(2), 201–212.

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