Marine Mammal Commission

Polar Bear

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the polar bear as a threatened species throughout its range in 2008 due to the threat of extinction posed by the loss of sea-ice as a result of climate change. Sea-ice constitutes essential polar bear habit and provides the platform from which polar bears hunt their primary prey, ice seals. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently updated an analysis of the threats posed to polar bears and concluded that range-wide persistence of polar bears will likely require stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century.

Female polar bear with cubs

Female polar bear with cubs. (Ian Stirling)

Species Status

Polar bears inhabit the circumpolar Arctic and portions of the subarctic on sea-ice and along coastal areas and islands. Although they sometimes range into international waters, polar bears generally occur in areas under the jurisdiction of five countries: Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Russia, and the United States (Alaska). Scientists and managers recognize 19 relatively discrete subpopulations, two of which occur in the United States. The Chukchi/Bering Seas population is shared with Russia and the southern Beaufort Sea is shared with Canada.

Worldwide polar bear numbers are estimated at between 21,000 and 25,000 animals. In 2009, the best estimates of population size for the two U.S. populations provided in the stock assessment reports prepared by the FWS under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) were 1,500 bears for the Southern Beaufort Sea population and 2,000 bears for the Chukchi/Bering Seas population. However, the international Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG)  in early 2015 found data deficiencies for the Chukchi Sea Stock indicating that any abundance estimates and trend assessments are considered unreliable. Also, a study published in 2015  detected a 25-50 percent decline in the Southern Beaufort Sea population between 2004 and 2006, and estimated the population’s abundance in 2010 at approximately 900 bears.

Due primarily to the predicted loss of sea-ice in Arctic waters over the coming decades, the FWS listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008. The FWS designated much of the area inhabited by polar bears in Alaska as critical habitat in 2010. That designation was subsequently vacated by the U.S. District Court in Alaska, but was reinstated by a 29 February 2016 ruling of the North Circuit Court of Appeals.

As required for species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the FWS is developing a recovery plan for the polar bear. In support of that plan, USGS updated an analysis of the threats posed to polar bears and concluded that range-wide persistence of polar bears will likely require stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century. Other threats to polar bears were found to be mostly insignificant compare to the risk of extinction posed by climate change. The Commission commented on the draft plan in October 2015.

As a party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears  and bilateral agreements with other range states, the United States works internationally to pursue the conservation of polar bears and their habitat. The five range states met in Greenland in September 2015 to discuss a variety of research and management issues. At that meeting, the range states adopted a circumpolar conservation plan for the species and a two-year implementation schedule. Under a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia regarding the shared Chukchi/Bering Seas population, the two countries jointly manage this population, including the adoption of annual sustainable harvest limits. The United States has planned to begin implementing those limits in 2016, but has postponed this schedule pending identification of a new Alaska Native partner organization and the development of implementing regulations.

What the Commission Is Doing

The Marine Mammal Commission is working closely with the FWS to promote the conservation of polar bears. The Commission participates on U.S. delegations to international polar bear meetings and has a representative on the polar bear recovery team. In those capacities, the Commission is integrally involved in advising the FWS and others on conservation needs and priorities for the species and on steps needed to meet U.S. obligations under the two applicable international agreements.

Polar Bear Summit

In coordination with FWS, the Alaskan Nanuuq Commission (ANC), Kawerak, and the North Slope Borough, the Commission co-convened a summit on June 1-2, 2016 in Nome, AK, to promote the co-management of polar bears for subsistence use, especially in relation to the agreement with Russia on the conservation and management of the Alaska-Chukotka stock. Alaska Native representatives from 13 villages discussed the current co-management structures, ANC’s role as the organization representing Alaska Native communities on polar bear matters, and options for moving forward. Participants were grateful for the opportunity to come together to discuss this important and time-sensitive issue. The Alaska Native community decided at the summit they would like to have ANC continue to represent their interests with respect to polar bears. However, shortly after that meeting FWS announced that it would no longer be able to fund the ANC’s activities. FWS and Alaska Natives are now in the process of identifying a successor organization to fill this role.

Commission Reports and Publications

For more information about polar bears and Commission-related activities, see our 2012 annual report.

Commission Letters

Letter Date Letter Description
July 11, 2016

Letter to FWS on follow-up to the 2016 Nome Polar Bear Summit and on steps needed to identify a new Alaska Native organization for co-management of polar bears

October 16, 2015

Letter to FWS regarding the draft polar bear conservation management plan

February 8, 2013

Letter to FWS regarding an application from the Alaska Oil and Gas Association for authorization to take polar bears incidental to oil and gas exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea

August 3, 2012

Letter to FWS regarding a proposed rule that would re-instate the special rule for polar bears

June 20, 2012

Letter to FWS regarding the listing of polar bear on CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendices

Learn More

Threats

The primary threat to the polar bear is the predicted loss of sea-ice and associated prey base. Other potential threats include oil spills and contaminants, unsustainable removals (e.g., in defense of life or for subsistence), loss of denning habitat, disease, and disturbance from increasing activities in the Arctic.

Current Conservation Efforts

The FWS published a draft polar bear conservation management plan in July 2015, which will guide conservation efforts for the species, particularly the two stocks that occur in the United States, in coming years. The Commission commented on the draft plan and will be working with FWS to develop and implement a final plan. In addition, the five polar bear range states have developed and are beginning to implement a circumpolar action plan for polar bears, drawing on each country’s national plan.

The Future/Next Steps

The Commission plans to continue to play an active role in advising the FWS and others on polar bear conservation matters. The Commission also expects to continue to play an oversight role regarding implementation of U.S. obligations under the applicable international agreements.

Additional Resources

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Polar Bear species page

U.S. Geological Survey Polar Bear Research

Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission

Alaska Nanuuq Commission

Inuvialuit – Inupiat Polar Bear Management Agreement