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 2012, summer sea ice losses in the Arctic were larger than the size of the United States.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group also lists climate change as the biggest threat to polar bear survival. At their 2009 meeting, 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
*7 had insufficient data
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.
Scientists predict that unless we take action to stop climate change, we will lose two-thirds of all polar bears by the middle of the century and all of them by the end of the century.
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."
View the full report of the PBSG's eight resolutions from their most recent meeting.
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|