12th meeting of PBSG in Oslo, Norway 1997

PRESS RELEASE

The 12th meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group was held in Oslo, Norway, 3-7 February, 1997, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Oystein Wiig, Zoological Museum, University of Oslo. Scientific delegates attended, representing each of the five circumpolar nations (Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, USA, and Russia) signatory to the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. Representatives from the Greenland Home Rule Government, the Greenland Hunters and Fishermen's Association, and the North Slope Borough, Alaska, attended as invited specialists.

The group reviewed progress on research and management of polar bears since the last meeting, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1993. Significant progress has been made in several areas. The extensive use of satellite tracking of female polar bears has continued and facilitated the refining of boundaries of populations in several areas of central and northeastern Canada, including those shared with Greenland. Similarly, satellite tracking of female polar bears across northern Asia and Europe, from the Chukchi Sea in the east to northeast Greenland in the west is beginning to delineate several discrete populations. Of particular importance is the finding, through the use of DNA microsatellites, that there is also genetic basis to the separation of populations based on satellite tracking.

The results of an arctic wide survey of toxic chemicals were reported. Of the locations where fat samples have been collected from polar bears for chemical analysis, the highest levels for PCBs were found in Svalbard, northeast Greenland and the northwestern Canadian Arctic Islands. In the areas where the highest PCB concentrations have been recorded, no negative effects on the health or reproduction of the bears there have yet been noted, although further studies are planned. Concern was also expressed about the fate of radionuclides from marine dumping of nuclear wastes in the vicinity of Novaya Zemlja and possible detrimental effects on polar bears and the marine ecosystem generally.

Under the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, countries sharing populations of polar bears are required to co-operate in research and management of those populations. A co-operative agreement between the Inupiat in Alaska and the Inuvialuit in Canada on the management of the shared population of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea has been in place since 1988 and continues to function well. Similarly a preliminary draft agreement between the Governments of The United States, Russia and users in Alaska and Chukotka is being developed, and the first discussions have taken place between Canada and Greenland to initiate the development of a co-operative management agreement for the shared polar bear populations in Kane Basin, Baffin Bay, and Davis Strait.

Hunting polar bears continues to be an important part of the culture and economy of indigenous people throughout the Arctic and their ability to do so is protected by Articles I and III of the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. To comply with the requirement that such harvesting take place in accordance with sound conservation practices the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group clarified that accurate information is required on the number location, sex, and age of harvested animals; the geographic boundaries of polar bear populations; population number and sex-age composition; and rates of birth and death for the population. Population modeling suggests the harvest should not include more than about 1.5% of the total number of subadult and adult females in the population.

A review of the world-wide status of polar bear, based on available knowledge was conducted. The state of knowledge of individual populations ranges from good to very poor. In summary, the world population of polar bears was thought to be between about 22,000 and 27,000. However, in many areas, numbers are still unknown. It is also important to remember that polar bears are distributed in geographically distinct populations, each of which must be managed individually. Finally, the group noted with concern that in several areas where polar bears are hunted for subsistence purposes there are insufficient population data to ensure management within sustainable limits.

Several priorities were identified as important for future research and management. These included: organizing a workshop on the estimation of population size and demographic parameters: monitoring PCB levels in polar bears near Svalbard and trying to determine whether or not they are having detrimental effects on bears: continuing to identify the boundaries and size of populations; studying the effects of the harvest, and the effects of manipulating the sex composition of the harvest on populations; and the relationships between bears, seals, and sea ice conditions.