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Plan Now or Say Goodbye to Entire Polar Bear Populations: the Who's Who in the World of Polar Bear Science Call for Immediate Action to Save the Species

Zak Smith

Posted February 6, 2013 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Polar bear with cub (Photo by FWS)

Twelve of the world’s preeminent polar bear researchers are calling on the five nations with polar bear populations (the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland) to develop crisis management plans for polar bears.  Otherwise, countries won’t have time to organize responses when predicted emergencies occur and entire populations could be lost.

The paper shows that its time “to consider drastic measures to save these iconic animals, including supplemental feeding by humans during ice-free periods and relocating more southerly populations to the High Arctic.”  Polar bears are in a dire situation: the best estimates indicate that more than two-thirds of all wild polar bears will be wiped out by 2050 as a result of sea-ice loss from climate change.

According to Andrew Derocher, the paper’s lead author, “We have covered the science side of the issue very well, but the policy and management aspects are locked in the past.  We still manage polar bears in Canada like nothing has changed.  Other countries are moving on some aspects of future polar bear management, but it is glacial compared to the actual changes we’re seeing in sea ice and the bears themselves.”

Mr. Derocher couldn’t  be more right.  His and other research shows that a very bad ice year in Hudson Bay – which is increasingly likely given the advanced pace of sea-ice loss – could leave hundreds of bears stranded on land for an extended period, putting an entire population of 900-1,000 bears on the line from starvation.  Nonetheless, Canada allows the hunting of polar bears from this and other populations to supply the international market for polar bear parts (e.g., skins, teeth, claws, skulls), even though “existing harvest management methods are inadequate for declining populations that, by definition, have no sustainable harvest.”

What’s worse, the Canadian government refuses to support a ban on the international commercial trade in polar bear parts through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), even though 85 percent of Canadians support the proposed ban and the growing global consensus is that such a ban is needed to give polar bears the best chance to survive climate change.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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