Answered by Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International and USGS polar bear project leader in Alaska for 30 years.
Q: Polar bears are a threatened species. Why do some nations allow hunting—including trophy hunting?
A: The Native people of the north have long hunted polar bears. Polar bear hunting plays a central role in long-held traditions and also provides food and fiber for traditional lifestyles. Polar bears in some areas were severely over-hunted in the past when trophy hunters utilized light aircraft and large motorized vessels to go into the ice to catch bears in large numbers. The introduction of high-powered rifles and snowmobiles also increased the ability of local Native people to kill polar bears. Aerial and ship-based trophy hunting was banned by international agreement in the mid 1970s. Polar bears are now mainly hunted by residents of the north.
Over most of the polar bear's range, hunting is now governed by a quota system designed to keep the kill within the bounds that populations can support. Each village gets a number of tags allowing hunters residing there to take the number of bears the population can sustain. In some regions, local people can choose to "sell" some tags to sport hunters. That is, they guide a non-resident hunter out on the ice to hunt bears and they allow that non-resident to shoot the bear they might have shot. Typically, this "sport" hunting results in the take of fewer bears because the sport hunters are normally not as successful as the local hunters.
Historically, this management system had the ability to assure polar bears' perpetual survival. Like all wildlife, polar bears can be harvested at a certain level without threat to the population welfare. When habitats were stable a sustainable harvest could be calculated and the number of hunter tags kept within that sustainable harvest. Unfortunately, polar bear habitat is no longer stable. Polar bears depend on the sea-ice surface to catch their seal prey, and global warming means progressively less sea ice on which they can hunt. Ultimately, all polar bears will see their habitats literally melting under their feet unless we act to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Then, there will be no sustainable harvest anywhere, and hunting bears will only accelerate the decline in their numbers.
At this point, however, global warming is affecting only some polar bear populations. Those that are not yet seeing the negative effects of habitat loss can provide a limited harvest for some time to come. Maintaining these harvests in the longer term depends on reducing the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations. But for now, some populations may still be safely hunted.
The most important point to remember is that without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, sea ice can only continue to decline. Without sea ice, there will be no polar bears—and, at that point, we will not be concerned about managing hunts. My research shows, however, that it's not too late to save polar bears and their sea ice home IF we greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Please visit the Take Action section of our website to learn how you can play a role.
For more on the role of indigenous people in the arctic ecosystem, see these two blog posts by Moki Kokoris: Revelations from the Desk of a Reformed Activist and Polar Bear Hunting Viewed Through Indigenous Crosshairs.