Polar bear hunting, harvesting and over-harvesting

World catches of polar bear 1960-1999

Polar bears are harvested in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and parts of eastern Russia (Chukotka area) under provisions set by the International Agreement. The numbers taken are regulated by quota in some areas, however, there are no legal limits to the number taken in some jurisdictions (see PBSG Proceedings for details). Annual harvest is between 500 and 700 bears or 2-3% of the world population of about 25,000 bears and is thought to be sustainable. A user group management agreement for polar bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea establishes harvest quotas and similar agreements are being negotiated in other areas. In other jurisdictions harvest is based on the size of the population estimated from mark and recapture studies. Harvest activities are closely monitored (number, sex and age of kill) in most areas to ensure that the populations that are harvested within the sustainable yield. Females with young are protected from harvest. The harvest of polar bears is biased towards males (about 60-70%) and hunters are encouraged to take males when possible to conserve the reproductive potential of the population.

Most polar bears are killed by indigenous people and this hunt has an important cultural role. The financial return from the sale of polar bear hides is also an important income for local people. Sports hunting of polar bears only occurs in Canada and these hunts form a part of the quota assigned to a community. Sports hunting can be a major source of income for remote settlements and the financial return from the hunt greatly exceeds that of the hide value. Sports hunts are often not successful and because a license for sports hunting cannot be re-issued, the allocated quota is often below the sustainable harvest. Polar bears taken in hunts is used as food in some communities. Hides and skulls are either sold commercially, converted to handicrafts, or used privately. In Greenland, polar bear pants are popular with the hunters. All international trade in polar bear parts is governed by CITES.

In the Norwegian Arctic and the western Russian areas, polar bears are protected from all forms of harvest except problem or defence kills. Defence and problem kills are inevitable when polar bears and people occur together, although their numbers can be reduced with proper precautions and training (e.g., proper disposal of garbage in field camps). Poorly planned camps and improper garbage disposal can result in needless killing of bears.

Mortality from set-guns (a self-killing trap with bait attached to the trigger of a gun) and hunting from ships and aircraft have ceased as a result of the International Agreement. While many polar bear populations are likely regulated by harvest, most populations are well managed and hunting does not pose a serious threat. In areas where over-harvest is suspected, managers typically increase monitoring and inventory efforts or enact harvest controls to ensure no lasting damage to the population. Local users are increasing their role in the management of polar bears and is resulting in improved status for many populations.

Poaching is not thought to be a major concern for polar bears although the extent of the illegal trade in Russia is uncertain.

Polar bearImage: Corbis.com

Polar bears have very low reproductive rates due to delayed maturation, small litter sizes, long mother-offspring bond, and variable but often high cub mortality. The low reproductive rates mean that population growth rates are low and the that if a population is substantially reduced then a long time is required for the population to recover: This is particularly so for populations that undergo continued harvest. Therefore, if a population is excessively harvested and greatly reduced in numbers, then it may take many years or even decades for the population to return to its original size.

Another issue of concern for polar bears is the excessive harvest of small populations. Small populations of all species are particularly vulnerable to over-harvest. In some areas, polar bears have extremely small home ranges and good habitat may be limited. Under such conditions, most of the population may be concentrated into a small area. Therefore, it is possible to maintain a high harvest rate until the population is greatly reduced in numbers. Such situations exist in Viscount Melville Sound and in the Svalbard Archipelago. Populations in such areas may be very slow to recover if the females that have a tradition of living in such areas are harvested and hence the cultural transmission of movement patterns is lost.

Over-harvest is an ongoing concern for many polar bear populations: particularly in areas where there is no information on the population size (e.g. Quebec, parts of Greenland, and the Chukchi Sea). An additional concern is that population inventory programs occur relatively infrequently in some areas so if the harvest rate is above the sustainable level, the population may be reduced before the next inventory is made. Fortunately, managers and researchers are working hard to ensure that all polar bear harvest is done is a sustainable manner. Recent development of co-management agreements and greater involvement of local people and hunters is improving the management of polar bears. Compared to the situation in the 1960s and 1970s, polar bear harvest management is vastly improved.

Polar bear harvest management has recently started to include a shift towards more conservative management with the recognition that information needed to manage a population is imperfect. Understanding the risk associated with a range of harvest management options is an important development for polar bear conservation. As threats such as pollution, climate change, tourism, and oil development are better understood, there will be more changes in how polar bear harvest is managed. Clearly, if reproduction or survival rates are affected by climate change or pollution, manager and hunters will have to alter their harvest accordingly.