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.
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