Unregulated hunting of polar bears—except by native peoples—ended in 1973 with an international agreement among the polar bear nations of Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway, and Greenland. Polar bears had been severely depleted by overhunting.
Today, legal hunting continues on a limited, regulated basis for native peoples.
- Norway is the only polar bear nation that protects polar bears from all forms of hunting. Three of the other four nations permit native hunts—a traditionally important cultural activity and source of income. Canada is the only nation that allows sport or trophy hunting by non-natives and non-citizens.
- Natives hunters are subject to a quota system that divides permits among native communities. In Canada, these hunters often sell their permits to sport hunters for large sums, creating a windfall for communities that have no other source of income. Interestingly, this often results in fewer bears being killed, as sport hunters are not as skilled as native hunters.
- U.S. hunters are no longer permitted to take their trophies out of Canada now that the polar bear is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, other nations allow importation of trophies from Canadian hunts.
Hunting quotas are based on polar bear population surveys. To truly protect polar bears, the five nations must conduct a thorough and ongoing census of polar bears, with quota levels set at sustainable levels.
- Canada's Baffin Bay population, for example, is considered to be at risk. And according to a report from the Polar Bear Specialist Group, harvest levels from Nunavut when combined with those from Greenland has put this shared population in danger of serious decline.
- In the U.S., only Alaskan natives can hunt polar bears. The U.S. population is shared with Russia and harvest levels in future will be based on a quota system between the two countries.
- In Russia, polar bears enjoyed protection from hunting of any kind for decades, but this may change. Native groups in the Russian Far East and the State of Alaska signed an international treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate, that allows hunting by Russian natives of the shared Chukchi population of polar bears. The treaty places quota restrictions on both U.S. and Russian natives. So far, Russia has banned the use of these quotas.
Indigenous peoples in Canada believe population counts by scientists are too low. They see larger numbers of polar bears on land and believe that traditional and local knowledge should be used in setting quotas.
Scientists, however, stand by their survey methods. They say that more polar bears on land is not a population increase but a sign of disrupted migration patterns as the bears are forced ashore by melting ice.
Today, the polar bear is classified as a threatened species. It will take careful management and immediate action on climate change for the species to survive.