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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Range and Habitat: Circumpolar distribution on sea ice and along coastal areas and islands of the Arctic and portions of the subarctic
Female Polar Bear with cub
Female Polar Bear with cubs
(Photo: Ian Stirling)

Status under U.S Law:

ESA - Threatened
MMPA - Depleted
Major
conservation issues:
Climate change, habitat modification (e.g., loss of sea ice), illegal hunting, oil and gas exploration and development, oil spills, contaminants, trade in polar bear hides and parts, international collaboration on conservation efforts,subsistence harvests
Physical characteristics: At Birth Maturity
Length unavailable 2.1-2.6 m
(6'11"-8'6")
Weight .6 kg
(1.25 lb)
300-800 kg
(660-1,800 lb)

Age:

25-30 years

Alaska is home to two populations of polar bears: one in the Chukchi/Bering Seas, which is shared with Russia, and the other in the southern Beaufort Sea, which is shared with Canada. Several other populations occur throughout the Arctic in Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Polar bears can traverse vast territories in search of their principal prey, which includes seals, particularly, ringed seals. Worldwide polar bear numbers are estimated at between 21,000 and 28,000 animals. In 2009, the best estimates of population size for the two U.S. populations provided in the stock assessment reports prepared by the Fish and Wildlife Service were1,500 bears for the Southern Beaufort Sea population and 2,000 bears for the Chukchi/Bering Sea population. However, the international Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) recently found data deficiencies for the Chukchi Sea Stock making any abundance estimates and trend assessments unreliable. In addition, a recently published study detected a 25-50 percent decline in the Southern Beaufort Sea population between 2004 and 2006, and estimated the population’s abundance in 2010 at approximately 900 bears.

A lack of accurate abundance estimates and trend data for some populations has contributed to controversy over the protection of this species. There is growing concern that, as the effects of climate change become more acute and the species’ ice habitat is lost or impaired due to melting, the persistence of polar bear populations will be jeopardized. In 2008 the Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears as threatened throughout their range. The Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the two U.S. populations in 2010, but that designation was vacated by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in 2013. Therefore, at this time, there is no critical habitat designated for the polar bear. In response to the species’ listing under the Endangered Species Act and depleted status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of preparing a recovery/conservation plan for the species, with a focus on the two Alaska populations.

Many polar bear populations declined in the early 1970s due to overharvesting by trophy hunters. This prompted the five polar bear range states to enter into the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. The Agreement restricts recreational and commercial hunting, but continues to allow hunting by Native peoples using traditional methods. More recently, the United States and the Russian Federation entered into a bilateral agreement to further the conservation of the Chukchi/Bering Seas polar bear population. The bilateral agreement establishes a U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission which is tasked with, among other things, determining the polar bear population’s annual sustainable harvest level. Hunting of polar bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea population is managed under the Inuvialuit - Inupiat Polar Bear Management Agreement in the Southern Beaufort Sea, an agreement between Native peoples in Alaska and Canada who have traditionally harvested bears from this population.

Links for Additional Information

Commission Reports and Related Publications:

See Polar Bear sections in chapters on Species of Special Concern in past Annual Reports to Congress:

Link to Past MMC Annual Reports

Commission Letters:

Recent Commission letters concerning polar bears:

August 20, 2013 - to FWS regarding a research permit application

June 24, 2013 - to FWS regarding a research permit amendment and renewal application from the University of Illinois to import polar bear samples

March 8, 2013 - to FWS regarding an application from the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct research on captive polar bears

February 19, 2013 - to FWS regarding an application for a permit renewal and amendment on polar bears

February 8, 2013 - to FWS regarding an application from the Alaska Oil and Gas Association for authorization to take polar bears incidental to oil and gas exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea

September 4, 2012 - to FWS regarding an application from the U.S. Geological Survey to renew a permit to continue research on polar bears

August 3, 2012 - to FWS regarding a proposed rule that would re-instate the special rule for polar bears

June 20, 2012 - to FWS regarding the listing of polar bear on CITES Appendices

May 10, 2012 - to FWS regarding a research permit on polar bear samples

Additional Links:

Polar Bear Specialist Group

Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears
Range States Meetings

U.S. - Russia Bilateral Agreement

Inuvialuit - Inupiat Polar Bear Management Agreement in the Southern Beaufort Sea

ESA Listing Rule and Critical Habitat Designation

National Marine Fisheries Service Stock Assessment Reports

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Marine Mammals Management - Polar Bear

Alaska Nanuuq Commission

 

 

 

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