It’s not easy to research polar bears. The work is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. But long-term data sets are critical for tracking trends and understanding the health of polar bear populations worldwide.

© Downs Matthews/Polar Bears International

5/21/2018 1:29:16 PM

Russian Polar Bears

One of the most frequent questions that we receive is: How many polar bears are there? The short answer is, we only have rough estimates due to lack of data for nine of the 19 polar bear populations. Scientists use a working figure of 26,000 polar bears worldwide based on a combination of quantitative data and expert opinion.

In this series, we’ll take a look at each of the five nations where polar bears roam—Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Russia, and Norway—to see where they stand with population counts. We’ll start with the nation that’s a big blank spot in polar bear research: Russia.

Remote and challenging

Conducting research in the Russian Arctic is logistically difficult and historically quite expensive, which is why the Russian Arctic contains the least-studied polar bear populations in the world. Two populations—the Laptev Sea and the Kara Sea polar bears—roam completely within Russian borders. Three others are shared populations: the Barents Sea bears, shared with Norway; the Chukchi Sea bears, shared with the U.S.; and bears in the Arctic Basin, shared with each of the circumpolar nations. All of them lack data at present.

The Barents Sea and Chukchi Sea areas are considered the areas of greatest biological productivity in the Russian Arctic and are assumed to support the largest polar bear populations. That’s why Norway and the U.S. recently started to invest in population counts of those shared populations, working with Russian partners. But much more needs to be done. A simple look at the global map of population status speaks volumes as the entirety of the Russian coast is marked as “data deficient” (see figure below).

Map of polar bear populations

Steps to erase the big blank spot

Essential infrastructure—including small aircraft, roads, and fuel depots—is often lacking or restricted in the Russian Arctic. International collaboration is further challenged by internal border security concerns and international politics. However, new partnerships and novel approaches are providing much-needed opportunities.

Norway, in collaboration with Russia and Greenland, is leading new research with the Barents Sea population, which has been exposed to the fastest loss of sea ice habitat in the last decade, a trend expected to continue. At the same time, Russia, in collaboration with the U.S., is leading new efforts with Chukchi Sea bears, including research on Russia’s Wrangel Island, long considered a polar bear nursery for the population. 

Both efforts are dependent on funding, and Polar Bears International is committed to supporting this important work where we can.

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