Polar bears live in remote areas that are difficult and expensive to study. This makes monitoring them a challenge, both for single surveys and long-term studies.
For this reason, scientists don't have solid figures on the total number of polar bears worldwide. They lack data on some populations, specifically those in Russia and East Greenland (see map above).
Arctic Russia is especially data-deficient. Not only is it one of the most remote areas on the planet, it lacks basic infrastructure (roads and airfields) and logistical support (small aircraft).
How many polar bears are there?
The most recent IUCN report estimates there are roughly 26,000 polar bears. Scientists base this estimate on the best available information, combined with expert opinions on those populations that lack current data.
About 60% of the world's polar bears live within or are shared by Canada. Polar bears are also found in the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard).
The IUCN lists the polar bear as a vulnerable species, citing sea ice losses from climate change as the single biggest threat to polar bear survival. Polar bears rely on the sea ice to hunt, travel, breed, and sometimes to den.
At their 2014 meeting, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, reported that of the 19 populations of polar bears:
- 3 are declining
- 6 are stable
- 1 is increasing
- 9 have insufficient data
Current Trends of the World's 19 Populations
|Baffin Bay||Davis Strait||M'Clintock Channel||Arctic Basin|
|Kane Basin||Foxe Basin||Barents Sea|
|S. Beaufort Sea||Gulf of Boothia||Chukchi Sea|
|N. Beaufort Sea||East Greenland|
|S. Hudson Bay||Kara Sea|
|W. Hudson Bay||Lancaster Sound|
|Viscount Melville Sound|
Results from long-term studies show:
- Canada's Western Hudson Bay population: has experienced a 22% decline or greater since the early 1980s, directly related to longer ice-free seasons on Hudson Bay during this same time frame.
- 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 before stabilizing.
- Baffin Bay population, shared by Greenland and Canada: at risk from both significant sea ice loss and likely overharvesting in recent times. An updated population estimated is expected in late 2015.
Visit the Polar Bear Specialist Group's website for a summary on each population's status.
Some people report seeing more bears
Some northern hunters and communities are reporting an increase in the numbers of polar bears on land. Some suggest this equates to an increase in the local population. In places like Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, or the Chukchi Sea, that could be true, as these areas show robust populations capable of growth—at least for now.
However in many areas, encountering more bears is more likely due to a larger percentage of the existing population spending more time on shore and in places where they are more likely to be seen due to the reduction of sea ice habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states, ". . . extensive scientific studies have indicated that the increased observation of bears on land is (often) a result of changing distribution patterns and a result of changes in the accessibility of sea ice habitat."