A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears
To inform the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision, whether or not to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), we projected the status of the world's polar bears (Ursus maritimus) for decades centered on future years 2025, 2050, 2075, and 2095. We defined four ecoregions based on current and projected sea ice conditions: seasonal ice, Canadian Archipelago, polar basin divergent, and polar basin convergent ecoregions. We incorporated general circulation model projections of future sea ice into a Bayesian network (BN) model structured around the factors considered in ESA decisions. This first-generation BN model combined empirical data, interpretations of data, and professional judgments of one polar bear expert into a probabilistic framework that identifies causal links between environmental stressors and polar bear responses. We provide guidance regarding steps necessary to refine the model, including adding inputs from other experts. The BN model projected extirpation of polar bears from the seasonal ice and polar basin divergent ecoregions, where ≈2/3 of the world's polar bears currently occur, by mid century. Projections were less dire in other ecoregions. Decline in ice habitat was the overriding factor driving the model outcomes. Although this is a first-generation model, the dependence of polar bears on sea ice is universally accepted, and the observed sea ice decline is faster than models suggest. Therefore, incorporating judgments of multiple experts in a final model is not expected to fundamentally alter the outlook for polar bears described here.