14th meeting of PBSG in Seattle, USA 2005


The 14th meeting of the IUCN/SSC World Conservation Union, Species Survival Commission, Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) was held in Seattle, WA, USA, during 20-24 June 2005, under the Chairmanship of Scott Schliebe.  In fulfillment of the terms of the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, delegates representing each of the five circumpolar nations signatory to the Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, 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 Wildlife Management Advisory Council, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (Canada), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA; USA), National Environmental Research Institute (Denmark) and other specialists.  The PBSG meets every 3-5 years to review and exchange information on progress in the research and management of polar bears throughout the Arctic and to review the worldwide status of polar bears. Invited specialists from the US National Marine Fisheries Service and Western Ecosystems Technology were instrumental in development of new analysis procedures for population data.

The world’s polar bears are distributed in 19 subpopulations over vast and sometimes relatively inaccessible areas of the Arctic.  Thus, while the status of some subpopulations in Canada and the Barents Sea are well documented, that of several others remains less known. Thus, it is not possible to give an accurate estimate of the total number of polar bears in the world, although the range is thought to be 20-25,000.

Research in several geographic areas indicates the greatest challenge to conservation of polar bears may be large scale ecological change resulting from climatic warming, if the trend documented in recent years continues as projected. A new analysis of the long-term subpopulation data base in Western Hudson Bay confirms the size of that subpopulation has declined from 1200 to less than 1000.  The group concluded the decline was caused by reductions in condition and survival, especially of young bears, because climatic warming has caused the sea ice to break up about three weeks earlier now than it did only 30 years ago.  Thus, polar bears have less time to feed and store the fat needed to survive on shore for four months before the ice re-freezes.  Significant reductions in the apparent survival of ringed seal pups and changes in the diet of sea birds in northern Hudson Bay, coincident with larger amounts of open water earlier in the summer, have also been reported.  Taken together, these results suggest that unknown changes in the marine ecosystem of Hudson Bay are now underway. Similarly, the minimum extent of multiyear ice in the polar basin continues to decline at the rate of 8-10% per decade, resulting in unusually extensive areas of open water in regions such as the Beaufort/Chukchi Seas and East Greenland. The Group emphasized the importance of continuing to monitor polar bear subpopulations in order to quantitatively assess the affects of climatic warming.

High levels of PCBs and pesticides were found in East Greenland polar bears. There was a strong indication of a relationship between contaminants and skull mineral density indicating possible disruption of the bone mineral composition. The changes were related to ageing, infections and chronic exposure. The Group felt these results confirmed the importance of continuing to monitor and study the effects of contaminants on polar bears.

With the results of the foregoing research and related uncertainties in mind, the Group reviewed the status of polar bears using the 2001 IUCN Red List categories and criteria.  The Group concluded that the IUCN Red List classification of the polar bear should be upgraded from Least Concern to Vulnerable based on the likelihood of an overall decline in the size of the total population of more than 30% within the next 35 to 50 years. The principal cause of this decline is climatic warming and its consequent negative affects on the sea ice habitat of polar bears. In some areas, contaminants may have an additive negative influence.

Harvesting of polar bears continues to be of primary importance to the culture and economy of aboriginal groups throughout much of the Arctic.  Therefore, maintaining a harvest within sustainable limits, in relation to subpopulation size and trends, remains a priority.  It was also recognized that aboriginal people resident throughout the Arctic are uniquely positioned to observe both wildlife and changes in the environment.  Thus, the Group confirmed the importance of integrating traditional ecological knowledge (termed IQ in Nunavut) with scientific studies to aid polar bear conservation wherever possible. Since the last meeting of the PSBG four years ago, significant new reports on traditional ecological knowledge of polar bears and their habitat have been completed in Chukotka, Alaska, and Canada. The results of these and future studies need to be incorporated into research and management where possible but the Group agreed that estimates of subpopulation size or sustainable harvest levels should not be made solely on the basis of traditional ecological knowledge without supporting scientific studies. Furthermore, because of continuing changes in ice cover, with unknown consequences for the arctic marine ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, the precautionary principle should be observed in determining harvest quotas, regardless of how certain the combined information appear to be.

There was substantial discussion about large quota increases in some polar bear subpopulations in Nunavut where there has continued to be uncertainty about subpopulation size and trends despite scientific studies augmented by computer simulations and traditional ecological knowledge. The group concluded that increases in harvest levels or estimates of subpopulation size should not be based on traditional ecological knowledge without support from sound scientific data and further, that regardless of how certain the combined information appear to be, increases in quotas should be implemented with the precautionary principle.

Although the harvest of polar bears in Greenland has been poorly regulated, the Greenland Home Rule government announced that quotas are to be implemented and enforced as of January 1 2006.  Hunters will have to have a special license for each polar bear hunted and this will be used to track the sale of hides or trading in parts. Preliminary discussions have been held with Canada to develop co-management agreements and determine the size of shared sustainable quotas for subpopulations of polar bears shared between the two countries using both scientific information and traditional ecological knowledge. The Group commended Greenland on this initiative and emphasized the importance of ensuring a sustained effort to monitor the harvest and enforce regulations.  Further, the Group noted the critical importance of a continuing a program of public education through the transition period to ensure understanding and acceptance of the vital need to improve the present system of management.

Similar to Greenland the group acknowledged significant harvest levels were occurring unregulated in Chukotka, Russia. The group urged both the United States and the Russian Federation to move rapidly to implement the Bilateral Treaty already signed between the two countries.

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 continue to require a significant degree of international cooperation and development of diverse and new approaches.