Issue of the Week: Polar Bear


Biologists estimate there are roughly 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world. More than 60% of the world’s polar bears (an estimated 16,000) live in Canada. Most of these bears are found in Canada’s far northern Nunavut Territory, a remote, sparsely inhabited area whose population is mostly Inuit.

Canada’s Inuit and other native people (known by the term First Nations in Canada) coexist with polar bears, harvest the bears for subsistence purposes, and value the bear’s conservation because of limited sport hunting by non-natives that brings much needed cash to the remote communities. This sustainable use has given them intimate knowledge of polar bear population dynamics and ecological needs. According to the scientific evidence, confirmed by local members of the communities, the polar bear has enjoyed an increase in population over the past 40 years, not a decline as portrayed by some.

Based on scientifically derived quotas, only 500-600 bears are harvested annually in Canada. Canada has extensive monitoring and conservation programs that protect the species, including through sustainable use by First Nations communities. Canadian polar bear quotas include all known human-caused mortalities, including subsistence harvest, guided hunts, and kills in defense of life and property.


Despite this information, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, citing the potential impacts of climate change in the foreseeable future as a main reason. Further, polar bear may once again be considered for up-listing to Appendix I at the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties next year in South Africa. The U.S. could, for the third time, propose up-listing, which could negatively impact trophy hunting and stop all commercial trade, thus removing one of the main incentives local communities have for conserving polar bears.

Since 2010, when the up-listing was first proposed, a wealth of new science and management efforts have been put in place to ensure a limited and controlled polar bear harvest is not detrimental to the species. Inuit villages in Nunavut are seeing more polar bears and experiencing more conflict. Polar bears now pose a significant risk to human safety in those communities.

Scott Schliebe USFWS
Scott Schliebe USFWS

As the people who co-exist with polar bears, Canada’s First Nations are most directly impacted by management changes. Local people are often asked to shoulder an unfair portion of the cost of conservation, with little benefit. Hunting, both for subsistence and as trophies, provides one of the few incentives available to local communities to benefit from co-existence with bears. Decades of sound conservation management based on applied science have shown that Canada and its First Nations are well equipped to sustainably conserve polar bears. They should not be unfairly punished by regulations that would do nothing to ensure continued conservation of polar bears, but would place even more burden and cost upon them.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news.

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