Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears
Earlier—in the 1960s and 1970s—unregulated commercial and sport hunting was the major threat to polar bears. So much so, that in 1973 Canada, Denmark (for Greenland), Norway, the U.S., and Russia signed a landmark accord, the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, to regulate practices and conserve polar bears.
This was the first time the five polar-bear nations had come together on a shared wildlife conservation issue.
The agreement remains one of the strongest multilateral environmental agreements ever signed.
Today, the primary conservation concern for polar bears is loss of their sea-ice habitat and reduced access to their primary prey, due to climate change and not harvest.
Other challenges include increased commercial activities, pollution, disease, inadequate habitat protection (of denning and seasonal resting areas), and the potential for overharvest in smaller or declining sub-populations.
Polar Bear Status Report
Polar bears live in remote areas that are difficult and expensive to study.
This makes monitoring them a challenge, both for single surveys and long-term studies.
For this reason, scientists don't have solid figures on the total number of polar bears worldwide. They lack data on some populations, specifically those in Russia and East Greenland.
Arctic Russia is especially data deficient. Not only is it one of the most remote areas on the planet, it lacks basic infrastructure (roads and airfields) and logistical support (small aircraft).
How many polar bears are there?
The most recent International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report estimates there are roughly 26,000 polar bears.
Scientists base this estimate on the best available information, combined with expert opinions on those populations that lack current data.
About 60% of the world's polar bears live within or are shared by Canada. Polar bears are also found in the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard).
The IUCN lists the polar bear as a vulnerable species, citing sea-ice loss from climate change as the single largest threat to polar bear survival.
Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt, travel, breed, and sometimes to den.
At their 2014 meeting, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group reported that of the 19 populations of polar bears:
Are Data Deficient
Current Trends of the World's 19 Polar Bear Populations
S. Beaufort Sea
Gulf of Boothia
N. Beaufort Sea
S. Hudson Bay
W. Hudson Bay
Viscount Melville Sound
Long-term studies on population
Canada's Western Hudson Bay population:
Experienced a 22% decline or greater since the early 1980s, directly related to longer ice-free seasons on Hudson Bay during this same time frame.
Southern Beaufort Sea population along the Northern Coast of Alaska and Western Canada:
Plunged by about 40% over a 10-year study period from 2001-2010, dropping from about 1500 bears to 900 bears before stabilizing.
Baffin Bay population, shared by Greenland and Canada:
Are at risk from both significant sea ice loss and likely over-harvesting in recent times. An updated population estimate is expected.
Visit the Polar Bear Specialist Group's website for a summary of the status on each population.
Why do some people report seeing more bears?
Some Northern hunters and communities are reporting an increase in the numbers of polar bears on land. Some suggest this is tied to an increase in the local population.
In communities such as Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, or the Chukchi Sea, this could be true because these areas show robust populations capable of growth—at least for now.
However, in many areas, encountering more polar bears is more likely due to a larger percentage of the existing polar bear population spending more time on shore and in places where they are more likely to be seen due to the reduction of sea ice habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, “…extensive scientific studies have indicated that the increased observation of bears on land is (often) a result of changing distribution patterns and a result of changes in the accessibility of sea ice habitat."