In May 2008, the U.S listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In Canada, polar bears are listed as a Species of Special Concern. Russia also considers the polar bear a species of concern.
What's happening? Sea ice losses in the Arctic from global warming are the major threat to polar bears. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding, and in some cases, denning. In 2012, summer ice losses in the Arctic were larger than the size of the United States.
Biologists estimate there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears. About 60% of those live in Canada. Polar bears are also found in the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, and on Norway's Svalbard archipelago.
At the 2009 meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, scientists reported that of the 19 subpopulations* of polar bears:
- 8 are declining.
- 3 are stable.
- 1 is increasing.
By comparison, in 2005:
- 5 were declining.
- 5 were stable.
- 2 were increasing.
*Insufficient data to determine the fate of the other 7 populations
Results from long-term studies show:
- Canada's Western Hudson Bay population: 22% decline since the early 1980s, directly related to earlier ice break-up on Hudson Bay.
- Southern Beaufort Sea population along the northern coast of Alaska and western Canada: decline in cub survival rates and in the weight and skull size of adult males; similar observations made in Western Hudson Bay prior to its population drop.
- Baffin Bay population, shared by Greenland and Canada: at risk from both significant sea ice loss and substantial over-harvesting.
- Chukchi Sea population, shared by Russia and the United States: declining due to illegal harvest in Russia and one of the highest rates of sea ice loss in the Arctic.
But some people are seeing more bears!
Some Native communities in Canada are reporting an increase in the numbers of polar bears on land. Traditional hunters believe this means an increase in population. Others attribute it to bears being driven to land by lack of ice. We need data to understand the change.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states, ". . . extensive scientific studies have indicated that the increased observation of bears on land is a result of changing distribution patterns and a result of changes in the accessibility of sea ice habitat."
The greatest challenge to the conservation of polar bears is ecological change in the Arctic resulting from climatic warming, according to the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). [July 6, 2009, Copenhagen]
Declines in the extent of sea ice are accelerating; sea ice losses in 2012 were 49% below sea ice coverage from 1979-200. Loss of sea ice threatens the survival of the world's polar bears.
Current Trends of the World's 19 Subpopulations in 2009
|Baffin Bay||N. Beaufort Sea||M'Clintock Channel||Arctic Basin|
|S. Beaufort Sea||Gulf of Boothia||Barents Sea|
|Chukchi Sea||S. Hudson Bay||East Greenland|
|Davis Strait||Foxe Basin|
|W. Hudson Bay||Laptev Sea|
|Lancaster Sound||Kara Sea|
|Kane Basin||Viscount Melville|
PBSG has committed to gathering information to better assess the effects or climate change on individual subpopulations, concentrating on these areas:
- Renewed conclusions of the effects of global warming on the Arctic and polar bears and urgent need for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Continued international study of the effects of pollution on polar bears and the interactions with climate change.
- Suitable forward actions for Canadian subpopulations based on the 2008 status report on polar bears by the Canadian Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
- Minimizing human-polar bear interactions.
- Recognizing current overharvest, recommends a new population assessment for Baffin Bay.
- Need for the collection of scientific samples from harvested polar bears in all jurisdictions.
- Conservation and increased monitoring of the Chukchi Sea polar bear population.
- Need for polar bear monitoring and range-wide capture.
View the full report of PBSG's eight resolutions.