In the past, unregulated commercial and sport hunting posed the gravest threat to the polar bear’s future. International regulations and careful management have eased that challenge, although vigilance is needed to make sure hunts remain sustainable as we head into a less stable future. Poaching in Russia and polar bear human conflict across the Arctic remain potential threats.
Today, legal harvesting continues on a limited basis for indigenous peoples. These hunts have long been an important part of their cultural traditions and provide important nutritional benefits in some regions.
Scientists estimate that the current legal harvest of polar bears is between 600 and 800 bears per year range-wide. That represents 3-4% of the estimated total population of about 20-25,000 animals and is considered sustainable in most areas and in most years.
- Three of the five polar bear nations (the U.S., Canada, and Greenland) permit managed harvest by Indigenous peoples. Russia may allow similar legal harvest in the future and as part of a historic agreement on shared harvest with the U.S. (see below). Norway only permits defense kills.
- In areas where subsistence harvest is allowed, hunters are subject to a quota system that divides permits among communities. In Canada, these hunters can sell their permits to sport hunters in some regions, creating a windfall for individuals and communities that have limited sources of income. Interestingly, this often results in fewer bears being killed, as sport hunters are not as successful as native hunters.
- U.S. hunters are no longer permitted to import their trophies back into the U.S. 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.
Harvest quotas are based on the best available information. Some regions combine scientific data from capture and surveys with traditional knowledge from local peoples. Given rapid changes in sea ice habitat across much of the Arctic, harvest management will need increased investment in jurisdictions where it occurs to ensure it never again threatens long-term conservation efforts.
- Canada's Baffin Bay population, for example, is considered to be at risk. According to a report from the Polar Bear Specialist Group, recent combined harvest levels from Canada and Greenland together with significant changes in sea ice habitat, has likely accelerated a decline in that sub-population. In response to this concern, new population research is currently under way with results expected by the end of 2015.
- In the U.S., only coastal dwelling Alaskan Natives can hunt polar bears. The U.S. populations are shared with Russia and harvest levels are carefully monitored.
- In Russia, polar bears harvest was made illegal for all people in 1956, ending decades of commercial trade. Despite this ban, Russian indigenous peoples, notably in Chukotka, continued their traditional harvest in secret and at low levels until the fall of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of that political event, with both food and fund scarcity, harvest of all available wild species peaked dramatically as communities struggled to survive. Since that time, there is good evidence that harvest has once again returned to relatively low levels, remains illegal, and is still conducted in secret.
- In addition, the U.S. and Russia signed a Bilateral Agreement on the management of the shared Chukchi polar bear population (ratified in 2000 with implementation beginning in 2007), following over a decade of negotiations. Under this agreement, the parties agreed to a first-ever shared quota system. Russia has currently deferred activating a legal harvest while the U.S. is set to begin implementation of their quota system in 2016.
The IUCN currently classifies the polar bear as a vulnerable species. Given the nature and breadth of the threats polar bears face, it will take adaptive management today coupled with aggressive action on climate change globally for the species to survive in the long run.