PBSG statement on proposed transfer of polar bear to CITES Appendix I
This document outlines the majority opinion of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) on the proposed transfer of the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The PBSG has reviewed the scientific information and CITES criteria. Although all polar bears are ultimately threatened with extinction and currently meet the Vulnerable criteria for the IUCN Red List (the equivalent of threatened in other systems), it is unclear whether they meet the existing CITES definition of threatened. Further, we find that transfer of polar bears to Appendix I is unlikely to confer a conservation benefit, and could have a negative impact on socioeconomic systems as well as domestic and international partnerships. We, therefore, agree with the findings of IUCN and TRAFFIC which conclude that polar bears, at present, appear not to meet CITES listing criteria for transfer to Appendix I.
We describe the rationale for our conclusion below.
At the 16th Conference of the Parties (CoP16) of CITES, in Bangkok, Thailand, March 3-14, 2013, the CITES member states will discuss and decide upon a US proposal to transfer polar bears Ursus maritimus to Appendix I. The justification for the proposed transfer is primarily based on a significant projected reduction in global population size resulting from large-scale loss of sea ice habitat as a consequence of climate warming. An Appendix I designation would prohibit international trade in polar bear specimens except when the purpose of the import is not commercial (e.g., scientific research). In addressing the question of “uplisting”, we consider the current understanding of polar bear biology and threats to their future persistence. We evaluate whether polar bears meet the criteria for a transfer presented in CITES Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP15) and finally we provide our best judgment regarding whether or not a transfer from Appendix II to Appendix I would benefit the long-term conservation of polar bears as a species.
Polar bear biology and impacts of climate warming
Several recent studies have linked multi-decadal declines in Arctic sea ice to negative effects on polar bears including declines in polar bear body condition and stature (Stirling et al. 1999, Obbard et al. 2006, Rode et al. 2010), declines in polar bear survival rates (Regehr et al. 2006, 2010, Rode et al. 2010), and declines in polar bear population size (Regehr et al. 2007). The earth can only continue to warm as long as greenhouse gas concentrations rise (Pierrehumbert 2011), and Arctic-wide sea ice decline has continued to outpace all model projections (Wang and Overland 2012). Amstrup et al. (2010) projected a loss of 2/3 of the world’s current population by the middle of the 21st century using quantitative projections for sea ice decline, assessments of other possible stressors, and available information on observed polar bear responses to reduced ice availability. There is no reason to believe the long-term prognosis for polar bears has improved since 2010 without any reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations (GHGs).
It is important to note the negative effects of climate warming and sea ice loss have been quantified only in a few of the 19 recognized polar bear subpopulations. The dearth of data in many areas prevent quantification of the magnitude of global change in polar bear numbers, and a global estimate of 20,000-25,000 bears (PBSG 2010) has remained unchanged for over a decade though no accurate estimates of total population size or trend are available.
Do polar bears meet CITES criteria for Appendix I?
1. Trade criteria
Pursuant to CITES Article II, paragraph 1, “Appendix I shall include all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade.” Therefore, an assessment of whether or not polar bears qualify for a transfer to Appendix I depends on whether they are threatened with extinction and whether they are affected by trade.
According to CITES Resolution Conf. 9.24 (Rev. CoP15) a species “is or may be affected by trade” if:
i) it is known to be in trade (using the definition of ‘trade’ in Article I of the Convention), and that trade has or may have a detrimental impact on the status of the species;
ii) it is suspected to be in trade, or there is demonstrable potential international demand for the species, that may be detrimental to its survival in the wild.
According to this definition, polar bears clearly meet the “affected by trade” criterion, and require scientifically based management to avoid detrimental impact on their status.
2. Biological criteria
There are three CITES criteria (Rev. CoP 15) for determining whether a species is threatened with extinction. Criteria A and B require that the population is either small or has a restricted distribution. Neither of these apply to polar bears.
The third criterion for classification as threatened with extinction is a marked decline that has been either observed or can be inferred or projected on the basis of area or quality of habitat, levels of exploitation, vulnerability to intrinsic or extrinsic factors or decreasing recruitment. In Annex 5 a general guideline on what a marked recent rate of decline is given as “a percentage decline of 50% or more in the last 10 years or 3 generations, whichever is the longer.”
Available data do not support a “marked recent rate of population decline” for polar bears range wide. Negative effects of climate warming have been scientifically documented in only a few subpopulations, some populations may currently be doing well, and data necessary to determine trend are not available for most. Therefore, a “decline in total population size” sufficient to meet the IUCN’s biological criteria has not been documented for polar bears to date.
The main concern for the welfare of polar bears, as outlined above, is the long-term future in the context of continued climate warming. Although the best available information suggests a decline in abundance of more than 50% within the next three generations (estimated to be 36-45 years) is highly probable (Amstrup et al. 2010), CITES criteria are not clear regarding whether the standard of decline (50% within the next 3 generations) applies to projected or inferred status as well as to observed status. Although Annex 1 states a marked decline can be defined as “observed or ongoing” or “projected or inferred,” the concepts of “projected or inferred” are not well defined. Annex 5 inserts the word “recent” into the “50% or more” criterion (“a marked recent rate of decline is a percentage decline of 50% or more in the last 10 years or 3 generations…”). Insertion of “recent” could be interpreted to suggest that the 50% criterion applies only to observed changes. Also, the only description of the future in Annex 5 is a reference to the “near future” defined as between 5 and 10 years. Although separate standards for observed and projected status seem illogical in the context of defining species risk, this limited reference to the future could be construed as application of more stringent criteria for projections than for observations, and as limiting the “3 generations” criterion to observed declines. All polar bears ultimately are biologically threatened with extinction and their total numbers will decline if the climate continues to warm as projected. Natural variation in the climate system and uncertainty about how climate conditions affect the abundance and distribution of polar bears, however, mean we cannot be certain actual declines will exceed 50% in the next three polar bear generations, and a 50% decline is not expected if the “future” is defined as 10 years. Therefore, we cannot conclude with certainty that polar bears meet the threshold of Threatened necessary for transfer to Appendix I.
Whether or not polar bears technically qualify for a transfer to Appendix I, the members of the PBSG do not find compelling evidence that a transfer would confer a conservation benefit.
Under the IUCN’s trade criteria, a species should be included in Appendix II if “regulation of trade in the species is necessary to avoid it becoming eligible for inclusion in Appendix I in the near future” or the “regulation of trade in the species is required to ensure that the harvest of specimens from the wild is not reducing the wild population to a level at which its survival might be threatened by continued harvesting or other influences”. Polar bears are accordingly placed in Appendix II. There is evidence that a recent substantial increase in the market value of polar bears hides has motivated an increase in both legal and illegal killing of polar bears in some subpopulations. Increased takings resulting from high fur prices could lead to population depletion. It is unclear, however, that a ban on international trade could provide benefit in subpopulations that are not already effectively regulated by annual quotas.
Sufficient data are, however, not available to quantitatively evaluate the effects of potential increases in illegal harvest resulting from international trade. Polar bear harvest, for nearly all subpopulations, is effectively regulated to remain within historically sustainable limits by local and regional authorities. Therefore, it is unlikely that any increases in harvest, beyond local subsistence use, will soon lead to large declines in the global abundance that would qualify polar bears for Appendix I under the “observed change” criterion. Finally, socioeconomic considerations are relevant to IUCN trade criteria. Polar bears are important to the subsistence culture and economy of indigenous peoples across the Arctic. Clear data on the increased illegal trade and its global impact, are necessary to justify socioeconomic impacts that could result from transferring polar bears to CITES Appendix I.
PBSG summary statement
The PBSG acknowledges that in some places, the CITES criteria are vague and open to differing interpretations. However, scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the primary global threat to polar bears is loss of sea ice habitat due to anthropogenic climate change — not international trade. Habitat loss and the resulting population declines can only be mitigated through global reduction in emissions of GHGs. International trade may be motivating local increases in the harvest from a small number of polar bear subpopulations. The resultant short-term impacts on local abundance notwithstanding, international trade does not currently appear to be a significant threat to the global polar bear population, and the global harvest is currently managed to avoid negative effects on persistence. Although there are jurisdictions in which some illegal killing or even legalized overharvesting is occurring, such unsustainable and illegal activities can best be controlled by the responsible governments willing to use their authority to enforce scientifically established harvest levels. Necessary internal management actions require the political will of the jurisdictions to be effective, and a transfer to Appendix I seems unlikely to precipitate that political will. Therefore, a change in CITES status from Appendix II to Appendix I is unlikely to result in fewer numbers of bears being killed. In most jurisdictions where polar bears are harvested, they most probably will continue to be taken in similar numbers for subsistence by Indigenous peoples (e.g., for local food consumption and handicrafts), and legal trade will continue within those countries even if the species is transferred to Appendix I.
Taking all of the above into account, by majority opinion, the PBSG agrees with the conclusions of the IUCN that the transfer of polar bears from Appendix II to Appendix I is not warranted at the present time. It is probable this situation will change in the future and trends in subpopulation sizes and harvest levels must continue to be monitored.
Amstrup, S.C., DeWeaver, E.T., Douglas, D.C., Marcot, B.G., Durner, G.M., Bitz, C.M. and Bailey, D.A. 2010. Greenhouse gas mitigation can reduce sea-ice loss and increase polar bear persistence. Nature 468: 955–958.
Obbard, M.E., Cattet, M.R.L., Moody, T., Walton, L.R., Potter, D., Inglis, J. and Chenier, C. 2006. Temporal trends in the body condition of Southern Hudson Bay polar bears. Climate Change Research Information Note, No. 3. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Applied Research and Development Branch, Sault Ste. Marie, ON, 8 pp.
PBSG. 2010. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 15th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, Copenhagen, Denmark, 29 June–3 July 2009. Edited by M.E. Obbard, G.W. Thiemann, E. Peacock and T.D. DeBruyn. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK, 235 pp.
Pierrehumbert, R. T. 2011. Infrared radiation and planetary temperature. Physics Today 64: 33-38.
Regehr, E.V., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2006. Polar bear population status in the southern Beaufort Sea: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2006-1337, 20 pp.
Regehr, E.V., Hunter, C.M., Caswell, H., Amstrup, S.C. and Stirling, I. 2010. Survival and breeding of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea in relation to sea ice. Journal of Animal Ecology 79: 117-127.
Regehr, E.V., Lunn, N.J., Amstrup, S.C. and Stirling, I. 2007. Effects of earlier sea ice breakup on survival and population size of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Journal of Wildlife Management 71: 2673-2683.
Rode, K.D., Amstrup, S.C. and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Reduced body size and cub recruitment in polar bears associated with sea ice decline. Ecological Applications 20: 768-782.
Stirling, I., Lunn, N.J. and Iacozza, J. 1999. Long-term trends in the population ecology of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay in relation to climatic change. Arctic 52: 294-306.
Wang, M. and Overland, J.E.E. 2012. A sea ice free summer Arctic within 30 years-an update from CMIP5 models, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2012GL052868.
Polar Bear Specialist Group. 25 February 2013
US Government members have recused themselves from the vote:
Terry DeBruyn, US Fish & Wildlife Service
Eric Regehr, US Fish & Wildlife Service
George Durner, US Geological Survey
Karyn Rode, US Geological Survey
Elizabeth Peacock, US Geological Survey
Three Russian members: Nikita Ovsyanikov, Andrei Boltunov and Stanislav Belikov have issued a minority statement.
Published Tuesday February 26 2013 by Dag Vongraven