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Canadian Polar Bear Management Needs Fixing

Andrew Wetzler

Posted July 18, 2012

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polar bear on sea ice

When you have a species, like the polar bear, that is facing catastrophic habitat loss throughout much of its range, you need to adjust your management according.  In particular, it becomes incredibly important to safeguard those places where the species may be able to find refuge in the future.  But don’t take my word for it:

EDMONTON - Most of the world’s polar bears are likely to disappear in the next 30 to 50 years if the Arctic continues to heat up as climatologists predict, two University of Alberta scientists say.

They conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific research that has been done on the bears.

In the recent issue of the journal Global Change Biology, Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher suggest that the bears of Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea in Canada and Alaska are likely to go first. And while they believe a small population of bears in northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic islands could persist in the foreseeable future, they warn that the long-term well-being of those animals is in doubt as well. …

What concerns Derocher the most is Canada, which has two thirds of the world’s polar bears under its jurisdiction. Neither the federal nor territorial governments have altered their management for the species.

“Estimates of sustainable harvest are based on methods established 30 years ago and don’t include habitat loss as a modifying factor,” he says.

So tell me, why do we allow the international commercial trade in polapolar bear rug (USFWS) r bear parts to continue?  This isn’t all that complicated. 

Take action here.

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Tom HarrisJul 19 2012 02:42 AM

Could you tell us when polar bears evolved and what has happened to Arctic temperature and sea ice in the period since then, please?

Andrew WetzlerJul 19 2012 10:28 AM

No need to be coy, Tom. I think what you're really asking is: why we should be concerned about polar bears when there is evidence that they have survived past warming periods?

The article I linked to addresses this argument : "Polar bears, Derocher says, survived the last period of Arctic warming, but they did so at a time when there were no humans hunting them, no shipping, no oil and gas developments, and no pollution stressing them. The past period of warming was also not as intense or prolonged as this one is turning out to be."

I also discussed this line of reasoning in a previous blog, which you can find here:

But let's grant, for the sake of argument, that there are areas in the central Canadian Arctic where polar bears may indeed survive over the (relatively) long-term. That makes conserving polar bears in those areas all the more important, which is precisely why our management of these populations has to be particularly conservative.

That's the fundamental point of the post.

Tom HarrisJul 19 2012 03:37 PM

Here is the answer to my question, since you did not answer it:

Dr. Tim Ball, a co-author of a paper for the scientific journal, Ecological Complexity, entitled “Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: Are warming spring air temperatures the “ultimate” survival control factor?” (Dec 2006) says, "DNA research indicates that polar bears evolved from Southeast Alaskan Brown Bears between 110,000 and 130,000 years ago. Since then there have been long periods of time when the Arctic was significantly warmer than today, such as the 6000 years from 9000 to 3000 years ago. Consequently, polar bears have survived extended periods with little or no sea ice."

So, the warming and lessening sea ice we see today should not cause them great problems, it appears. Why don't you go after the factors that may be, which, as you list them, are humans hunting them, shipping, oil and gas developments, and pollution stressing them? But, first, we would need data to support the idea that these factors are in fact serious enough to cause significant population declines. I know that, in the 13 regions of the Arctic in Canada, overhunting has caused lessening population in two of them. How about the rest and the other actors?

Andrew WetzlerJul 19 2012 07:09 PM

I think I answered your question exactly, Tom. Please see the link I provided for more details.

But to reiterate: the previous warming periods in the Arctic that some genetic evidence suggests polar bears survived were (1) not as warm a current climate models suggest we are likely to see in the Arctic in the coming years and (2) ended. What's more that same genetic evidence shows that polar bears experienced a genetic bottleneck during warm periods (i.e., their population declined significantly).

Now add to that industrialization, hunting, and toxic contamination and I hope you can see that polar bears face a far more perilous situation today.

At any rate, our management regimes should reflect these risks, not ignore them.

Joe SandiegoJul 24 2012 01:29 AM

I do believe in we are in long term (millennia) global warming. For the purpose of this debate, it is irrelevant whether it is man made. What your article fails to address is how many animals are harvested?, by whom? for what purpose? How many do you think it should be?
Personally, I can't think of a valid reason to harvest any. I think generally hunting and fishing are good, but we should not generally harvest apex predators.

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