The polar bear is the largest carnivore and a unique symbol of the Arctic. Nineteen populations of polar bears are distributed in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. The world wide population is estimated to be 22,000-25,000 bears. Two populations occur in Alaska: the southern Beaufort Sea stock, shared with Canada; and the Bering Chukchi/Seas stock, shared with the Russian Federation (Range Map)
In Alaska, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects polar bears by prohibiting “take” of polar bears. The MMPA provides for specific exceptions to the prohibition on taking, including a provision that allows Alaska Natives to hunt polar bears for subsistence and the creation of handicrafts.
Worldwide, polar bear populations remain relatively stable; however, climate change, contamination of the Arctic environment, potential over-harvest, and increasing human development in polar bear habitat pose conservation challenges for polar bears.
The US government released a plan that could save the Arctic’s most iconic creature: the polar bear. The Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, which focuses on actions for the two US subpopulations in Alaska and was introduced by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), stresses the importance of climate change mitigation in curbing the loss of the polar bear’s sea ice habitat.
Polar bears depend on sea ice for every aspect of existence: nourishment, rest, breeding, and movement. But as temperatures in the Arctic rise, sea ice becomes more and more scarce. The results are scarcity of prey, population fragmentation and human-wildlife conflict, all of which contribute to the decline of polar bear populations. The polar bear also plays a critical role in the health of the overall marine environment, and their absence would have damaging effects on the ecosystem.
In developing the Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan, USFWS sought input from numerous stakeholders, including representatives from federal agencies, non-profit organizations, scientists and industry leaders. WWF played an integral role in drafting the plan and strengthening the climate change action portion of the plan.
The release of the plan comes on the heels of another great victory for the Arctic. In December, President Obama announced permanent protection for 115 million acres of federal waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.