Snow-covered sea ice seen past a tree-lined shore in Churchill

Photo: Dave Allcorn / Polar Bears International

Hudson Bay

Polar Bear Hunting



08 Jan 2021

Ask the Experts

Q: Why is polar bear hunting allowed?

"Hunting is important to some Indigenous peoples in terms of both culture and subsistence. Where hunting is allowed, takes are governed by a quota system designed to keep the harvest within the bounds that populations can support.”

The Indigenous peoples of the north have long hunted polar bears. Polar bear hunting plays a central role in long-held cultural traditions and also provides food and clothing, historically and today. Polar bears in some areas were severely over-hunted in the past when commercial and trophy hunters utilized light aircraft and motorized vessels to go into the ice to catch bears in large numbers. The introduction of high-powered rifles, outboard motors, and snowmobiles also increased the efficiency of indigenous hunters. Aerial and ship-based trophy hunting was banned by international agreement in the mid 1970s along with commercial harvest. 

Over most of the polar bear's range, polar bears are now mainly harvested by Indigenous peoples, with takes regulated by management systems designed to keep the take within the bounds that populations can support. In countries where harvest is allowed, each community gets a set number of tags that allow hunters residing there to harvest the number of bears the population can sustain. In some parts of Canada, local people can choose to "sell" some tags to sport hunters. That is, they guide a non-resident hunter out on the ice to hunt bears and they allow that non-resident to shoot the bear they might have shot. Typically, this "sport" hunting results in the take of fewer bears because the sport hunters are normally not as successful as the local hunters. The resulting cash economy is also significant for some northern communities with otherwise very limited opportunities for employment.

Historically, this management system had the ability to assure polar bears' perpetual survival. Like all wildlife, polar bears can be harvested at a certain level without threat to the population's welfare. When habitats were stable, a sustainable harvest could be calculated and the number of hunter tags kept within that sustainable harvest. 

Unfortunately, polar bear habitat is no longer stable. Polar bears depend on the sea-ice surface to catch their seal prey, and global warming means progressively less sea ice on which they can hunt. Ultimately, all polar bears will see their habitats literally melting under their feet unless we act to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Science has already documented declines in some populations as a direct result of habitat loss, but changes in harvest have not always followed these new abundance estimates. If sea ice declines continue to drive down population numbers, ultimately there will be no sustainable harvest anywhere.

At this point, however, global warming is affecting only some polar bear populations. Those that are not yet seeing the negative effects of habitat loss can provide a managed harvest for some time to come. Maintaining these harvests in the longer term depends on reducing the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and adjusting management plans as new population estimates are published. For the present, some populations may still be safely hunted.

The most important point to remember is that without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, sea ice can only continue to decline. Without sea ice, there will be few polar bears in very few places—and, at that point, we will not be concerned about managing hunts. Research shows, however, that it's not too late to save polar bears and their sea ice home IF we act soon to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Dr. Steven Amstrup on the tundra

Photo: Jenny Wong

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