The Polar Bear Specialist Group has focused on polar bear research and conservation for 50 years. The group was created by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

© BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International

4/4/2018 3:05:02 PM

Polar Bear Specialist Group: 50 Years!

 By Dr. Ian Stirling, Member, PBSG (1974–present)

Note: The brief note below, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, is summarized from a much broader examination of the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears – its History and Future, led by Dr. Thor Larsen, one of the original members of the group when it was first formed in 1968. A copy of the full article is available below for free in PDF format.

The first international meeting on the conservation of polar bears was held in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1965. At that time, overhunting was thought to be the greatest threat to polar bear populations throughout the circumpolar Arctic. Thus, to start the process toward international cooperation on the research and conservation of polar bears, representatives met in Fairbanks, Alaska from all the “polar bear nations,” Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and the USSR, along with representatives of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which was headquartered in the politically neutral country of Switzerland.

At the end of the meeting, the delegates asked the IUCN to organize a subsequent meeting, to be held in Switzerland in 1968. By the time that meeting was held, the IUCN had established a “Polar Bear Specialist Group” under the auspices of their Species Survival Commission, and this meeting, 50 years ago, was to be its first.

Scientific expertise

The initial group was small and consisted only of two scientific delegates from all the countries except Denmark, which was unable to attend at that time. Besides sending formal invitations to the five countries, the IUCN took the unusual step of naming the experts they wanted invited to participate in this new scientific group. They took this step to try to prevent countries from sending bureaucrats rather than scientists with knowledge of polar bears.

The fact that this international meeting between all the polar bear countries was occurring at all was a major accomplishment because, at the time, there were significant political tensions between the USSR and the western countries, particularly the United States. Thus, to try to maximize the opportunity to have frank and open discussions about research and management needs at the first meeting, free of statements that might be regarded as political, the meeting was closed and no formal proceedings were produced. Furthermore, the group decided that subsequent meetings should continue at intervals of two years, again in the politically neutral territory of Switzerland. 

International cooperation

At the third meeting of the PBSG in 1970, the Soviets proposed an international protocol on the protection of polar bears which, after a couple of years, developed into the creation of an International Convention for Research and Management of Polar Bears. The PBSG members were then tasked with informing their respective governments about this proposal in preparation for further discussions in 1972.

As is now well known, these collaborations concluded with the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat, signed in Oslo, Norway in 1973. The Agreement came into effect in 1976 after the minimum number of three countries had ratified it. Five years later (in 1981), the PBSG and representatives of the five polar bear nations evaluated progress on the Agreement, again in Oslo, and agreed that it should continue in perpetuity. This was an enormous accomplishment, especially since it was the first international agreement on any subject signed by all the circumpolar Arctic nations at a time when the Cold War was still in existence.

Expanded membership

In the years after the first meeting, leading up to the signing of the Agreement and eventual ratification, membership and attendance in PBSG meetings was limited to scientific representatives of the participating governments. However, although the meetings were closed, written records of the Proceedings were kept and, like all subsequent proceedings, are available in PDF format for free download from the PBSG website under the subsection of meetings and events.

However, as the research needed to conserve polar bears evolved and became progressively more advanced technically, it was clear to the PBSG that it needed to expand its expertise well beyond its own membership at that time. Thus, in 1976, the late Dr. Nils Øritsland was invited to the 6th meeting of the PBSG, in Switzerland, to discuss physiological research and the first approaches to population modeling. His significant contributions and insights made the benefits of expanding the membership of the PBSG clear, which led to expansion of the number of specialists invited to their working meetings in subsequent years. 

Currently, scientifically qualified members are drawn from government agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations, based on their scientific knowledge of some aspect of the biology of polar bears. Representatives of user groups from Greenland, Canada, and the United States have now participated as observers for about 35 years. As the years passed, ever more detailed scientific studies in a wide variety of subject areas were undertaken and reported on.

Threat of climate warming

Of particular importance to polar bear conservation, beginning in the early to mid-1990s, was the realization that increasing warming of the climate in the Arctic was causing significant loss of sea ice, with the potential for detrimental effects on polar bears.

At the 13th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, held in Nuuk, Greenland in June 2001 the following resolution was passed as it reflected the group’s conclusion that climate warming had now replaced hunting as the greatest single threat to the future of viable populations of polar bears:

Resolution 1.  Effects of global warming on polar bears

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Recognizing that sea ice is critical to the continued survival of polar bears; and,

Recognizing that the earth’s climate has warmed significantly over the past century and this trend is continuing; and,

Recognizing that, as a result of climatic warming, the maximum ice cover of the Arctic Ocean has declined significantly over the past 20 years; and,

Recognizing that documented changes in the pattern and timing of breakup and fluctuations in the seasonal distribution of sea ice significantly influence the condition and reproduction success of polar bears and their prey; and,

Recognizing the need to manage polar bears and the ecosystem of which they are a part (Article II); therefore

Recommends that research on the effects of global climatic warming on polar bears be increased in order to understand how these changes will continue to affect polar bears in the future and develop management and conservation measures to respond to future changes.

Since then, the amount of research being undertaken in relation to assessing the possible effects of climate change has increased greatly and, sadly, has confirmed that climate warming is truly the greatest single threat to polar bears. The PBSG continues to support and encourage research in that subject area.

Most recently, at the meeting of the Range States in Norway in March 2009 (the five nations where polar bears roam), the delegates asked the PBSG to serve as their scientific advisory body and that request was granted. In 2012, under the leadership of the Chair, Dag Vongraven of the Norwegian Polar Institute, the PBSG produced a monograph “A circumpolar monitoring framework for polar bears” to serve as a guide to research needs. A copy is appended as a PDF below for anyone interested.

Further reading

Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears – its History and Future.pdf

A Circumpolar Monitoring Framework for Polar Bears.pdf

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