Why are managers not feeding polar bears in the wild?

Answered by Geoff York, PBI's Senior Director of Conservation

Q: Why aren't there supplemental feeding programs for wild polar bears?

A: There are currently no supplemental feeding efforts for polar bears in any of the five nations where polar bears roam (known as the “Range States”). There are two situations, one in Kaktovik, Alaska and another in two communities in Chukotka, Russia, that represent feeding of sorts. In Kaktovik, polar bears gather to feed on the remains of bowhead whales from subsistence hunts. In Russia, managers use diversionary feeding (placing existing, natural food sources on the landscape) to draw polar bears away from coastal communities. Neither of these are formal supplemental feeding programs. In most jurisdictions, feeding of any wildlife would also be prohibited by legislation and restricted to formal government interventions.

True supplemental feeding (the use of external food sources) has been successfully used in the management of brown bears in both the U.S. and Europe, specifically as a short-term response to a poor natural foods year and as a way to keep bears in the mountains/woods and out of communities and garbage. A key aspect to successful supplemental feeding is the short-term nature of the case or issue at hand and a discrete geographic scale.

For polar bears and the Arctic writ large, we are facing a very different situation of persistent, large-scale, and very long-term habitat loss and alteration. Supplemental feeding at the scale required for population-level impacts, and in the caloric form poor bears need, would be fraught with hurdles including sourcing appropriate materials, disease transfer, habituation, and creating artificial gatherings of bears that can increase other threats. 

Given the long-term nature of the habitat changes in the Arctic, managers who begin a supplemental feeding program would be committed to maintaining those efforts for a very long time and at great cost. While public pressure in some jurisdictions may result in supplemental feeding attempts, the long-term conservation of polar bears as a species relies on rapid and sustained greenhouse gas reductions globally—combined with the successful management of short-term threats like harvest, disease, toxics, and denning habitat protection.

Polar Bears International is actively engaged in supporting research that improves our understanding of polar bears and climate impacts while we concurrently add our voice to the growing chorus on the need for climate mitigation and work with management authorities to support conservation efforts on the ground in real time. 

We would welcome your help in teaming up with us to support our efforts. Visit the Get Involved section of our website to learn how you can plug into community solutions that will help us transition to a low-carbon future.

It’s also extremely important to vote with the climate in mind, in elections big and small, and to let your elected officials know you want meaningful action on climate change. This includes not only meeting the pledges made at the Paris climate talks, but also going beyond them.