Jenifer Kohout of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is one of the lead authors of the U.S. Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. The plan seeks to make clear that the most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address global warming.

10/16/2015 7:42:56 PM

A Plan for Alaska's Polar Bears

This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft of its Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan for comments and discussion. The comment period closed on September 19th and the service is now revising and finalizing the document. We talked with one of the lead authors, Jenifer Kohout, about what the plan means for Alaska's polar bears.

Q: Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey led the conservation planning effort, quite a few different parties—from indigenous groups to nonprofits and industry representatives—contributed to the plan development. Why such a broad group?

It was important to the service that the draft plan reflect the values and perspectives of the many governmental and non-governmental agencies, institutions, and organizations currently involved in polar bear conservation. These entities are integral to the conservation of the species.

Going forward, conservation of polar bears will require the collective will and collaboration of nations and native communities, of government agencies and private organizations, of scientists and subsistence hunters. This plan reflects the diverse values of several of those stakeholders.

Team members also brought diverse expertise in polar bear biology, climate science, policy, communications, and traditional and contemporary indigenous ecological knowledge. We've posted a full member list on our website.

Q: The polar bear is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Although the listing applies to polar bears range wide, the plan focuses on the two populations—the Southern Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea—found in the U.S. (in Alaska). Could you tell us about both of them?

The Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation is shared with Canada. It had an estimated population size of approximately 900 bears in 2010 (Bromaghin et al. 2015). This represents a significant reduction from previous estimates of 1,800 in 1986 (Amstrup 1986), and 1,526 in 2006 (Regehr et al. 2006).

The Chukchi Sea population is shared with Russia and we do not have a current or reliable abundance estimate. The most recent estimate was provided in 2002, based on expert opinion of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) and extrapolation of previous denning surveys on Wrangel Island (Russia). That estimate was 2000 bears (PBSG 2002); the current population status according to the PBSG is unknown (PBSG 2014).

Q: Does the fact that these are shared populations make managing them more difficult? Does the U.S. work cooperatively with Russia (Chukchi Sea bears) and Canada (Southern Beaufort Sea bears) on their conservation?

The fact that the populations are shared does add complexity to management. Not only do we work through agreements and treaties with countries that share polar bear populations, but we also work cooperatively with Alaska Native Organizations to conserve polar bears and provide co-management of subsistence use by Alaska Natives. 

An international conservation agreement for polar bears signed in 1976 by the U.S., Russia, Norway, Canada, and Denmark (Greenland) calls for cooperative management of polar bears. Another treaty, the agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population (U.S.-Russia Agreement), covers the shared Chukchi Sea population of bears.

Notably, the treaty calls for the active involvement of native people and their organizations in polar bear management programs. It also enhances long-term cooperative efforts such as conservation of ecosystems and important habitats, sustainable harvest allocations, collection of biological information, and increased consultation and cooperation with state, local, and private interests. 

Polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea have been managed under the Inupiat-Inuvialut Agreement (between Alaskan North Slope residents and the Inuvialuit Game Council in Canada). This voluntary agreement establishes a harvest quota and calls for management based on sustainable yield.

Q: What actions can the USFWS take or support with respect to polar bears outside the U.S.?

The single-most important action for the conservation of polar bears range wide is reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary cause of Arctic warming and the loss of the bear's sea-ice habitat. Coupled with timely, aggressive global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is the need for optimal polar bear management practices. The draft plan identifies high priority actions the service and its partners can take now that will contribute to the survival of polar bears while global governments, industries and citizens work to address climate change.

With regard to actions outside our borders, the draft plan calls for supporting international conservation efforts through our relationships with the other Polar Bear Range States: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States). As a Range State and an active contributor to the Circumpolar Action Plan, we will contribute to implementation of international priorities that coincide with our own and that align with our statutory responsibilities. We also plan to share strategies and best management practices with our Range State partners. In turn, advances in knowledge and management practice made by Range State partners will actively inform implementation of this plan in the United States.

The draft plan also calls for targeted conservation efforts with Canada and Russia. We will work with Russia to better monitor and manage human-caused removals in that country. We will also work with Russia to protect denning habitat in Chukotka and on Wrangel Island, where almost all denning for the Chukchi Sea population occurs (Garner et al. 1990). And we will provide support to Canada's efforts to manage polar bears in the Canadian Archipelago, which we anticipate will provide key terrestrial polar bear refugia as sea ice declines (Derocher et al. 2004; Amstrup et al. 2008, 2010; Peacock et al. 2014).

Q: The plan cites human-cased climate change as the biggest threat to polar bears. Can you tell us how the plan addresses this?

The best prognosis for polar bears entails prompt and aggressive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (so that forcing is kept under 3.5 W/m2) combined with optimal polar bear management practices, which together could maintain viable polar bear populations in most regions of the Arctic (Amstrup et al. 2010). The draft plan provides a framework for the service and its partners to accomplish the latter goal. Action to accomplish greenhouse gas mitigation will need to be taken by governments, industries and citizens throughout the world; the service's contribution to that effort will be building awareness and effectively communicating the need for global action.

Recovery of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act will not happen unless the threat of sea-ice loss is adequately addressed such that it is no longer a threat to polar bear persistence. The draft plan states that this would occur when the average duration of the ice-free period in each of four ecoregions (recovery units) is expected:

  • not to exceed four months over the next 100 years based on model projections
  • or is expected to stabilize at longer than four months and there is evidence that polar bears can meet the demographic criteria under that longer ice-free period

To move the global community towards meeting these criteria, the service and our partners would develop and deliver a communication strategy that articulates the consequences to polar bears and their habitat of the current greenhouse gas emissions scenario compared to one that reflects an aggressive approach to curtailing emissions worldwide.

The ultimate goal of our communication effort is to prompt sufficient regulatory, market-driven, or voluntary actions at global and national scales to address the human causes of Arctic warming and abate the threat to polar bears. The strategy would also communicate the impact of changes in climate on coastal Arctic peoples who derive cultural and nutritional benefit from polar bears.

Q: Aside from climate change, what are the other threats to Alaska's polar bears? What recommendations does the plan make for addressing them?

The draft plan identifies three categories of "threat": 1) those threats that were identified in the listing rule and are currently an impediment to recovery; 2) those potential threats that are not currently an impediment to recovery, but could become impediments before the threats in the first category are addressed; and 3) those potential threats that could become an issue in the future, but are of more distant concern at this time.

By far, the single largest threat to polar bear persistence is sea-ice loss (Atwood et al. 2015). Global greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of Arctic warming and the loss of the bear's sea-ice habitat; as previously discussed, the single most important action for the conservation of polar bears is a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the second category are subsistence harvest and disease and parasites. Subsistence harvest of polar bears was not identified as a threat to polar bears when polar bear were listed as threatened under the ESA. Alaska Native communities have co-existed with the polar bear for millennia and are key partners in polar bear conservation. In fact, U.S. laws recognize the importance of their long-standing cultural and nutritional connections to polar bears, by including provisions for sustainable take of polar bears for subsistence harvest. Subsistence harvest should not become a threat to recovery so long as it occurs at a sustainable rate that has only a small or negligible effect on the persistence of populations (Atwood et al. 2015, Regehr et al. 2015). Guidelines for a sustainable rate for total human-caused removals, including subsistence harvest, are established in the draft plan under the MMPA-based demographic criteria.

A second potential threat involves exposure to disease and parasites. This is not currently a threat to the persistence of polar bears. However, data on the exposure of polar bears to disease agents and parasites are quite limited and the warming climate and polar bear's naÌøve immune system create reasons for concern (Burek et al. 2008, Weber et al. 2013). The draft plan calls for continued monitoring of disease and parasites to ensure that they do not become a threat.

In the third category are a number of other factors, including shipping, oil and gas development, and oil spills. These were evaluated in the 2008 ESA listing rule for polar bears but not found to be threats at that time. The potential for these factors to become threats in the future is distant or low (Atwood et al. 2015). That said, recognizing that these factors have the potential to cause polar bear mortality, the draft plan does contains conservation and recovery actions seeking to minimize the risk of mortality. Those actions include: management of human-polar bear conflicts, protection of denning habitat, minimizing the risk of contamination from oil and chemical spills, and conducting strategic monitoring and research.

Q: U.S. scientists are also contributing to a Circumpolar Action Plan for polar bears. How does this differ from the U.S. plan? Do the two complement each other?

The Polar Bear Range States have long recognized the need to coordinate polar bear conservation efforts (1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears). In their capacity as parties to that agreement, the Range States resolved in 2009 to develop a Circumpolar Action Plan.

The purpose of the Circumpolar Plan (CAP) is to broadly address range-wide conservation challenges such as the threat to polar bears posed by global greenhouse gas emissions, and potential threats like human-bear conflicts and illegal trade, which must be effectively managed for the species to survive until climate change is addressed.

The CAP is intended to focus on those areas that would benefit the most from international coordination and collaboration. This differs from the U.S. plan, which focuses on actions within the control of the U.S., and those that are supplemented by commitments made bilaterally for shared populations. The CAP then adds another layer to focus on those actions and areas where the Range States intend to coordinate in order to further polar bear conservation at the circumpolar level.

The CAP is intended to be supplementary to national plans. It is not intended to duplicate those plans or dictate to any one party how to conduct management and research within its jurisdiction. Rather, in recognition of limited resources and the transboundary nature of polar bears, as well as many of the actions affecting them and their habitats, the CAP identifies areas where working together we can increase our chances of success.

Q: Identifying critical habitat is a separate process under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Can you give us an update on where this process stands for polar bears?

In December 2010, the service published a Federal Register notice designating critical habitat under the ESA for the polar bear (75 FR 76086). That designation was challenged in U.S. Federal Court and in January 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska issued an order vacating the designation and remanding it to the service. The service has appealed the Court's decision with the United States Courts for the Ninth Circuit and we are waiting for a ruling from the Appellate court on our appeal.

Q: The USFWS has a long history of managing listed species and specifically taking the lead on recovery plans. Was this process different from earlier efforts?

The recovery planning process varies widely depending on characteristics such as a species' range, the nature of the threats, and the level of public attention. In this case, the service embarked on a process we thought suited polar bear conservation realities and needs. First we engaged a diverse group of experts and stakeholders in the planning process. We also adopted in the plan a set of fundamental goals that recognized the values of those stakeholders. Those fundamental goals include ensuring that polar bears persist in the wild - a typical recovery goal. They also include less typical recovery goals such as recognizing the importance of native traditions and continued sustainable subsistence harvest; the need to manage human-polar bear interactions to ensure human safety; and the desire to achieve conservation while minimizing restrictions to other activities including economic development.

A second challenge faced by the Recovery Team was determining how to develop ESA "recovery" criteria for a species that is currently at historic population levels but is expected to decline precipitously due to climate change. Typically we write recovery criteria after a population has already declined. The draft plan envisions that the polar bear population may stabilize at a lower number than today but at a place where the species is no longer at risk of extinction - as evidenced by the satisfaction of demographic and threats-based criteria in each of four ecoregions (recovery units).

The final and most difficult challenge is turning the tide towards recovery. The single most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming. The plan seeks to make clear that successful polar bear conservation requires a global commitment to curb the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the interim, we - along with numerous others who care about polar bears - are committed to doing everything within our power to improve the ability of polar bears to survive in sufficient numbers and places so that they are in a position to recovery once the necessary global actions are taken.

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