Delegates watched climate change impacts directly from their meeting room, which overlooked a bay filled with melting icebergs.

© Geoff York/Polar Bears International

9/9/2015 9:53:27 PM

Fast Ice and Measured Conservation: the 5th Meeting of the Polar Bear Range States

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

The community of Ilulissat, Greenland, on the massive island's southwest side, was the perfect setting for the 5th Meeting of the Parties to the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. Ilulissat town is home to the Ilulissat Icefjord, the world's fastest moving glacier and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was fortunate to attend the meetings as a delegate of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Jakobshavn Isbrae, which terminates in the fjord, is Greenland's largest outlet glacier, draining 6.5 percent of Greenland's ice sheet area. This one glacier produces enough ice annually to meet all of the freshwater needs in the United States—that's a lot of ice! Since 2002, its speed has nearly doubled. This ice flow from land to ocean has increased the rate of sea level rise by about .002 inches per year, or roughly 4 percent of the 20th century rates of sea level increase—just from this single source, according to NASA. 

Sitting in the meeting hall, delegates from Greenland, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the United States could literally view climate change impacts: a bay filled with massive icebergs just outside the window. The rising temperatures that are causing dramatic loss of the Greenland ice sheet are also reducing and thinning Arctic sea ice across the North, directly impacting all Arctic life. 

At the meeting, the Polar Bear Range States reaffirmed the primary long-term threat polar bears face from climate change. They also committed to a host of actions as they formally accepted their international Conservation Action Plan (CAP). The CAP lays out an ambitious set of plans for the next two years and beyond including: 

  • Minimize threats to polar bears and their habitat
  • Communicate to the public, policy makers, and legislators around the world the importance of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to polar bear conservation
  • Ensure the preservation and protection of essential habitat for polar bears
  • Ensure responsible harvest management systems today that will sustain polar bear subpopulations for future generations
  • Manage human-bear interactions to ensure human safety and to minimize polar bear injury or mortality
  • Ensure that international legal trade of polar bears is carried out according to conservation principles and that poaching and illegal trade is curtailed

Of note, the parties formed and confirmed several working groups to help guide and carry out the list of tasks. This included confirming the existing human-polar bear conflict and trade groups, which have already been carrying out tasks from the last meeting in Moscow.

Members of the human-polar bear conflict group reported on progress made in developing a shared database on bear conflicts and encounters. The database will be an important tool for analyzing conflict data on local, regional, and international scales.

The trade working group tabled a new report focused on Canada's harvest and resulting commercial trade. Following commitments made in 2011, the Range States endorsed six new recommendations from the group regarding trade in polar bears. If fully implemented, these will strengthen international cooperation among law enforcement agencies and improve the clarity of legal trade data. 

Additionally, the Range States confirmed the IUCN Polar Bears Specialist Group as their scientific advisors. They also formed a new Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) working group to establish guidelines for including TEK in management decisions where appropriate.

As someone who has watched the Range States since they began to have regular meetings at the 2009 session in Tromso, the gathering was a lesson in what a friend referred to as "slow, or deliberate, conservation" - recognizing that meaningful change takes time. Six years ago the Range States as a group were loathe to even discuss climate change and had no shared plan. They also lacked a formal relationship with the group that has arguably carried the water for them since the signing of the 1973 Agreement—the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

A lot has changed over the past few years, and the Range State's evolution towards action is clearly evident in the activities above. 

While the ice sped by outside the window, those of us in the room stayed focused on the long game of polar bear conservation—crafting out a plan for deliberate, thoughtful actions in response to a changing world.

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