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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Population Status

Population estimates

 

History of Conservation Efforts (last updated 2009)

Serious concern began in the 1960s after years of increasing hunting.

1965: First international meeting on conservation of Polar Bears in Fairbanks Alaska. Polar Bear Specialist Group established by IUCN

1972: Killing except for native subsistence prohibited by U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act

1973: 5 Polar Bear nations, U.S., Canada, Denmark (for Greenland), Soviet Union and Norway (for Spitsbergen) draft agreement to restrict hunting, protect habitat and carry out research on Polar Bears (U.S. ratified in 1976)

1984: Total population in Alaska estimated at 2,000. Hunted by Inuit natives along north coast. 15 villages took 344 animals between 1985-87

1988: Agreement signed by native hunters to jointly manage Polar Bear harvest in Alaska and Canada.

2005: IUCN listed as Vulnerable (A3c) with Decreasing Populations (based on decline in area of occupancy) Version 2009.1

2006: US Fish and Wildlife calls for ban by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Union of Socialist Republics, and United States of "hunting of female Polar Bears with cubs and their cubs" and "hunting of Polar Bears in denning areas during periods when bears are moving into denning areas or are in dens." (Schliebe et al 2006)

2007: Population estimate worldwide: 22,000 (USGS 2007)

2007: USGS in September predicts 2/3 of the population will disappear by 2050 and that Polar Bears will be restricted to the Arctic archipelago of Canada / northern Greenland coast

2008: Listed with U.S. Endangered Species Act as Threatened

2009: IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group documented "unprecedented sea ice retreats in 2007 and 2008" and confirmed earlier conclusion that unchecked global warming will threaten Polar Bears everywhere.

2009: Population estimates for all 19 Polar Bear populations about 20,000 to 25,000 individuals. (IUCN 2009)
Unlike all other bear species, Polar Bears still occupy most of their original habitat.

2009: Polar Bear Specialist Group reveals that eight Polar Bear population groups are now in decline, up from five in 2005.

2009: U.S. government will set aside 200,541 square miles in Alaska and off its coast as "critical habitat" for polar bears.

2015: Polar Bear Specialist Group concluded one subpopulation had increased, six were stable and, there were insufficient data to provide an assessment of the current trend of the remaining nine. (Wiig et al. 2015)

Conservation Status

IUCN Status

CITES Status

Threats to Survival

Hunting

  • Natives of the Arctic hunt the bear for its fat and fur. Canada also allows non-residents to hunt Polar Bears if they are guided by Inuit hunters traveling by dog team.
  • Sport and commercial hunting increased in twentieth century. Fortunately, in recent years the demand for Polar Bear skins as vanity hangings and floor coverings has been declining. (Pelts now sell for $400-$500. Previously a prime pelt brought $3,000)

Habitat degradation and disturbance of dens

  • Ongoing oil and gas exploration and development
  • Tourism
  • Scientific research
  • Recreational activity (all-terrain vehicles, aircraft boats).

Possible oil spills

  • Decomposes slowly and is highly toxic to Polar Bears when ingested through grooming or contamination of food source

Environmental pollution

  • As a carnivore at the top of the Arctic food chain, the Polar Bear is threatened by the concentration of toxic substances in its organs (heavy metals and chlorinated hydrocarbons have been showing up in increasing amounts in tissue samples.)

Climate change

  • Hunger and starvation
  • Can only hunt seal when there is a large extent of sea ice
    • Extension of ice-free period will increase nutritional stress on bears and affect reproductive success and survival rates. (Stirling et al 2008) (Molnar et al 2010)
    • Sea ice is breaking up at progressively earlier dates
    • Female body weights and numbers of independent yearlings have declined as sea ice melts
    • Intervals between reproduction have increased
    • A tipping point in polar bear survival is predicted between having to fast for 4 months and 6 months due to climate warming:
      • Summer fasting for 4 months = 3-6 % of adult males die of starvation
      • Fasting for up to 6 months = 28-48% of adult males die

Polar Bear Walks for Conservation Science

How much energy does a polar bear need to survive?

By asking one of the San Diego Zoo's polar bears to walk on a special treadmill, scientists were able to better understand the metabolism of polar bears in the wild.

This research study showed that a polar bear's energy needs are higher than previously thought.

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Page Citations

Aars et al (2006)
Amstrup (2003)
Dowsley (2007)
Molnar et al (2010)
Prestrud & Stirling (1994)
Schliebe et al (2006)
Stirling (1993)
Stirling and Derocher (2007)
Stirling et al (2008)
Servheen (1989)
IUCN (2009)

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