3/30/2015 5:00:17 AM

Reducing Conflicts with Polar Bears

By Geoff York, PBI Senior Director of Conservation 

In the Arctic, conflicts between polar bears and people are on the rise and expected to increase as sea ice habitat shrinks. In regions with large summer sea ice losses, polar bears are becoming more frequent visitors to land and staying for longer periods of time. At the same time, human activity is increasing in the region as the sea ice gives way to new and more accessible waters.

Without careful planning and management, tragic outcomes are inevitable, for both polar bears and people. The recent attack on a camper in Svalbard—which ended badly for the bear—is just one example of the sort of events expected to occur.

The Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group is trying to stay ahead of the curve by learning from other conflict-reduction efforts around the globe and across species. The team's goal is to reduce the expected increase in polar bear-human encounters and greatly minimize negative outcomes.

I just returned from a meeting of the group in Copenhagen, Denmark, hosted by the Greenland government. This is the third such face-to-face meeting of the team, one of several working groups formed as the polar bear range states (Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the U.S.) work to finalize the new International Conservation Plan for Polar Bears.

By collaborating and sharing data, our goal is to work together to conserve this incredible species into the future. The initial team is comprised of experts and practitioners from governments and conservation organizations.

Sharing information

One of the key projects when the group first started was to develop and populate a shared international database on conflict incidents. The Polar Bear Human Interaction Management System, or PBHIMS, is now a reality, thanks to the leadership of Norway and the U.S., with the support of many others.

The database currently contains conflict data from Norway and the U.S., plus significant data from Canada and Greenland. It awaits data from Russia. The system also includes the first summary data on international and regional scales. The data helps managers visualize conflict hotspots and better understand the underlying causes of conflict incidents.

While in Copenhagen, we spent time further refining the PBHIMS. We also developed a two-year strategy and work plan to support the larger conservation action plan. Tangible outcomes include:

  • The development of new web entry portals for data collection from Norway
  • Discussion of three new scientific papers on polar bear conflicts
  • Shared data on the effectiveness of bear spray on polar bears
  • A final analysis of successfully managed incidents and their underlying causes

Reducing human-bear conflicts is a goal shared by governments, communities, conservation organizations, and industries that work in the Arctic—a rare case of broad agreement in the all too often politicized world of polar bear conservation.

Successful management of conflict is a pre-condition for the long term conservation of many species. With the continued support of range state governments and other partners like PBI, reducing conflict across the polar bear's range is on solid footing with strong momentum as we head into an uncertain future. The Conflict Working Group is a diverse and dedicated team. We have ambitious plans for the next two years, so stay tuned!

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