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 Norway (Svalbard).
In May 2008, the U.S listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, citing sea ice losses in the Arctic from global warming as the single biggest threat to polar bears. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, breeding, and in some cases, denning. In recent years, summer sea ice losses in the Arctic have been accelerating.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group also lists sea ice losses from a warming Arctic as the biggest threat to polar bear survival. At their 2013 meeting, scientists reported that of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears:
- 4 are declining
- 5 are stable
- 1 is increasing
- 9 have insufficient data
Current Trends of the World's 19 Subpopulations
|Baffin Bay||Davis Strait||M'Clintock Channel||Arctic Basin|
|Kane Basin||Foxe Basin||Barents Sea|
|S. Beaufort Sea||Gulf of Boothia||Chukchi Sea|
|W. Hudson Bay||N. Beaufort Sea||East Greenland|
|S. Hudson Bay||Kara Sea|
|Viscount Melville Sound|
Results from long-term studies show:
- Canada's Western Hudson Bay population: 22% decline since the early 1980s, directly related to longer ice-free seasons on Hudson Bay.
- Southern Beaufort Sea population along the northern coast of Alaska and western Canada: plunged by about 40% over a 10-year study period from 2001-2010, dropping from about 1500 bears to 900 bears.
- Baffin Bay population, shared by Greenland and Canada: at risk from both significant sea ice loss and substantial over-harvesting.
Scientists predict that unless we take action to stop climate change, we could lose two-thirds of all polar bears by the middle of the century and all of them by the end of the century. Visit the Polar Bear Specialist Group's website for a summary on each population's status.
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. Scientists attribute it to polar bears being driven ashore by lack of ice.
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."