© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com

Are Polar Bears Endangered?

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group lists the polar bear as a vulnerable species, citing sea ice loss from climate change as the single biggest threat to their survival. The most recent study (Hamilton & Derocher, 2018)* estimates there are currently about 23,000 polar bears worldwide. But without action on climate change, we could see dramatic declines in polar bear numbers by mid-century.

Other threats to the bears include increased commercial activities, pollution, disease, inadequate habitat protection (of denning and seasonal resting areas), and the potential for over-harvest in smaller or declining polar bear populations.

Status and Trends of the World's 19 Polar Bear Populations

Polar bears live in 19 populations across the Arctic. About 60% live within or are shared by Canada. Polar bears are also found in the U.S. (Alaska), Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard).

map showing polar bear regions
  • AB - Arctic Basin
  • BB - Baffin Bay
  • BS - Barents Sea
  • CS - Chukchi Sea
  • DS - Davis Strait
  • EG - East Greenland
  • FB - Foxe Basin
  • GB - Gulf of Boothia
  • KB - Kane Basin
  • KS - Kara Sea
  • LS - Lancaster Sound
  • LV - Laptev Sea
  • MC - M'Clintock Channel
  • NB - Northern Beaufort Sea
  • NW - Norwegian Bay
  • SB - Southern Beaufort Sea
  • SH - Southern Hudson Bay
  • VM - Viscount Melville Sound
  • WH - Western Hudson Bay


Kane Basin

M'Clintock Channel


Barents Sea

Chukchi Sea

Davis Strait

Foxe Basin

Gulf of Boothia


N. Beaufort Sea

S. Beaufort Sea

S. Hudson Bay

W. Hudson Bay

Data Deficient

Arctic Basin

Baffin Bay

East Greenland

Kara Sea

Lancaster Sound

Laptev Sea

Norwegian Bay

Viscount Melville Sound
See summaries of what we know about each population.
© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com

Why are so many polar bear populations classified as data deficient?

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, aside from the Chukchi Sea population, 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). Polar Bears International is currently helping to fund studies that will erase some of Russia’s big blank spots.

Long-term studies show population trends

Because of the expense and logistical difficulties of working in many Arctic locations, there are very few long-term studies of polar bear populations. But those with long-term data sets allows scientists to track changes over time. For example…

Canada's Western Hudson Bay population:

Experienced a 30% decline in the time period from 1987 to 2017, 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 appearing to stabilize.

Why do some people say there are more polar bears than ever?

The number of polar bears worldwide is not increasing. Some populations are recovering after their numbers were vastly reduced by uncontrolled hunting in the 1960s, but that potential for growth is running head first into declining carrying capacity in some regions due to loss of sea ice habitat. Learn more in our Scientist Q & A.

Related to this, residents of many communities in Hudson Bay are seeing more polar bears. These polar bears are increasingly getting into food caches, entering camps, and posing risks to communities and residents. The observation that “people are seeing more bears in and around sites of human activities” is real evidence of a change from the past conditions northern residents knew.

Western science-based knowledge/evidence shows that in the Hudson Bay system, polar bear body condition has been declining, bears are having fewer cubs, fewer cubs are surviving after birth, and the population size has declined.

These two different pieces of knowledge/evidence are easy to integrate: As malnourished bears spend more time on land for longer periods, more are venturing into settlements where they are looking for food, leading to increased polar bear-human conflicts. Learn more.

Continue Hunting & Ecosystem

It's not too late. Act now to effect change.

Your actions today will help prevent potentially catastrophic changes from taking place—not only helping polar bears, but also preserving the climate that has allowed humans to flourish.

Act Now