13th meeting of PBSG in Nuuk, Greenland 2001

PRESS RELEASE

The 13th meeting of the IUCN World Conservation Union, Species Survival Commission, Polar Bear Specialist Group was held in Nuuk, Greenland, during 23-28, June 2001, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Stanislav Belikov and Scott Schliebe. Delegates representing each of the five circumpolar nations signatory to the Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, USA), were in attendance. Also attending as invited specialists were representatives from the Greenland Home Rule Government, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission (Alaska), the Inuvialuit Game Council and the Nunavut Tuungavik Incorporated (Canada), and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. The PBSG meets on a 3-5 year rotation and reviews and exchanges information on progress in the research and management of polar bears throughout the arctic.

Harvesting of polar bears remains of great importance to the culture and economy of aboriginal groups through much of the Arctic. Therefore, monitoring harvests and population trends remains a priority. Greenland in particular announced new progressive and positive management changes. The Group recognized the importance of co-management agreements, including the active participation of user groups, that have been established between the Inuvialuit of Canada and the Inupiat of Alaska and between the United States and Russia. The Group further noted and fully supported the initiative to establish co-management of populations of polar bears shared between Greenland and Canada.

The status of all populations was evaluated within the limits of the data available. The current minimum estimate of the total number of polar bears occupying the 20 distinct populations in the circumpolar Arctic is 22,000. New approaches were demonstrated for modeling polar bear populations. Such models offer the ability to assess the relative risks of a range of management alternatives. The Group also recognized the need for more proactive management to address knowledge both limitations regarding polar bear population dynamics, and increasing environmental uncertainty resulting from climate change and pollution in the Arctic.

The group reviewed overall progress in research and management of polar bears throughout its circumpolar range and identified priorities for future studies. In particular, new information indicates the greatest future challenges to conservation of polar bears may be ecological change in the Arctic as a result of climate change and pollution.

For example, in western Hudson Bay, the ice now breaks up about two weeks earlier than it did 20 years ago so that polar bears have less time to feed and store fat needed on while on shore for four months before the ice re-freezes. Furthermore, particularly high levels of persistent organic pollutants have been found in polar bears from northeast Greenland, Svalbard, and the western Russian arctic. A comparative study of the relationship between the levels of these contaminants and the immune system of polar bears in Svalbard and western Hudson Bay confirmed that high levels of contaminants have a negative effect on the ability to combat disease. Pollutants are also affecting hormonal systems with uncertain consequences. In response, the group is now planning a collaborative circumpolar study to determine current contaminant levels in bears, to compare to one it completed 10 years ago. This study will provide definitive information on trends in pollutants previously identified in the Arctic, as well as detection and quantification of new contaminants.

Aboriginal people resident throughout the Arctic are uniquely positioned to observe changes in the environment so integration of their traditional knowledge with western science to aid polar bear conservation was confirmed as a priority. For example, ongoing efforts to collect traditional knowledge of polar bear habitat use in Chukotka, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland are being encouraged and the results will be incorporated into future research and management.

Future challenges for conserving polar bears and their Arctic habitat will be greater than at any time in the past because of the rapid rate at which environmental change appears to be occurring. The complexity and global nature of the issues will require a great degree of international cooperation and development of diverse and new approaches to address these issues.