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) in 2016 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.

In 2016 U.S. and Russian researchers conducted aerial surveys using thermal imaging to try to obtain an updated and more reliable population estimate of the Chukchi/Bering Seas polar bear population. Analyses of the data are ongoing and the Fish and Wildlife Service expects to have a preliminary abundance estimate in 2018.

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, vacated in 2013 by the U.S. District Court in Alaska, was reinstated by a 29 February 2016 ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that the FWS develop a recovery plan for listed species, including the polar bear. The FWS published its Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan on 20 December 2016 to meet that requirement and to serve as a conservation plan under the MMPA. The plan 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 compared to the risk of extinction posed by climate change and the associated loss of sea ice.

As a party to the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, the United States works internationally to pursue the conservation of polar bears and their habitat. The five “Range States” that are parties to the agreement (Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United 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. Progress in implementing that plan will be a central focus of the next Range States meeting, scheduled for 2-4 February 2018 in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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 had planned to begin implementing those limits in 2016, but has postponed this schedule pending coordination with the new Alaska Native co-management organization for polar bears and the development of implementing regulations. At its 2016 meeting the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission agreed to retain the previously adopted annual harvest limit of 58 bears but noted that new scientific information was expected within the next few years that will inform a re-examination of that level and related issues. The Polar Bear Commission’s Scientific Working Group expects to review much of that information and formulate recommendations on the annual sustainable harvest level and other issues for consideration at the 2018 Commission meeting. In the interim, the Polar Bear Commission plans to hold an abbreviated meeting by teleconference in December 2017.

In early 2017, the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM) convened a meeting of village representatives concerning the establishment of a new Alaska Native organization to engage in co-management of polar bears. Subsequent meetings culminated in the formation of a new organization, the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which has been recognized by the FWS as the successor entity to the Alaska Nanuuq Commission under section 501(2) of the MMPA.

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 participated on the polar bear recovery team that developed the Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. 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. This meeting allowed federal managers and Alaska Natives to consider options available for implementing U.S. responsibilities under the agreement and provided useful background for the ongoing efforts to form a new Alaska Native organization for polar bears.

Comments on Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

On 9 January 2017, the Commission provided comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service in response to an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking input on developing a regulatory program and local management structures to carry out U.S. responsibilities under the United States-Russia Polar Bear Agreement and Title V of the MMPA. The Commission noted that the expectation has always been that U.S. implementation of the agreement would be achieved jointly by the FWS and an Alaska Native partner and that this continues to be the preferred path. The Commission also believed that it should be left largely to the Alaska Native communities to decide how they want to be represented. The Commission supported the adoption of regulations that recognize shared management and enforcement responsibilities and suggested two alternatives for providing the new Alaska Native organization with the necessary legal authority to carry out those functions.

 

Commission Reports and Publications

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

Commission Letters

Letter Date Letter Description
September 20, 2017

Letter to FWS on the review of draft stock assessment reports for  the Chukchi/Bering Sea and the southern Beaufort Sea stocks of polar bears

January 9, 2017

Letter to FWS commenting on advance notice of proposed rulemaking for meeting U.S. responsibilities under the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement

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 the Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan in December 2016 to guide conservation efforts for the species, particularly the two stocks that occur in the United States, in coming years. The Commission participated in developing the plan and will be working with FWS on its implementation. 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

Inuvialuit – Inupiat Polar Bear Management Agreement