Death rates for Canadian polar bears have soared due to climate change as well as hunting. The Canadian government faces international scrutiny for its position on both factors causing the bears’ disappearance.
This year, Canada was ranked 27th out of the world’s 27 wealthiest countries in a report by the Center for Global Development ranking countries in terms of action on greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, a European report ranked Canada 55th out of 58 countries in terms of their climate policy. Climate change and sea ice melt are the number one threat to polar bear populations.
There has also been a rise in polar bear hunting in Canada, despite population declines. Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that “Despite the grim outlook for polar bears due to the growing threat of climate change, Canadian polar bear kills have risen at [an] alarming rate, in excess of 10 percent over previous years.”
Last October, Canada’s Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, “provoked outrage” when she “discounted abundant scientific studies of polar bear decline across the Arctic, saying her brother, a hunter, was having no trouble finding bears,” the Guardian reports. “My brother is a full-time hunter who will tell you polar bear populations have increased and scientists are wrong,” Aglukkaq said.
Then, last week, Aglukkaq incited controversy when she posted a photo of a dead polar bear on Twitter, along with the message: “Enjoy!!… My cousin caught his first polar bear last night.” Aglukkaq subscribes to the idea that the polar bear hunt is still acceptable because it is a historical part of Inuit culture.
Also last week, the biennial meeting of the International Polar Bear Agreement began in Moscow where data was presented that “points to an unsustainable rise in hunting that threatens the species.”
“Polar bears already face an enormous threat from climate change,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity said at the meeting. “Adding overhunting to an already deadly situation is speeding up the polar bear’s extinction.”
The Polar Bear Specialist Group, a group of scientific experts established in 1968 to address conservation measures for the polar bear, presented an update on the status of several polar bear populations. They said that 4 of 19 subpopulations are currently declining and that, while each population will respond differently to climate change in the short term, the long-term story is the same – “the polar bear faces total extinction within our lifetimes if the world fails to act on climate change,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Prices for polar bear hides have quadrupled since 2007, doubling during last year to $22,000 for a single hide. Demand for the hides is also growing, particularly in China, where a single hide can sell for up to $80,000.
According to scientists, 3 of the 4 populations currently in decline due to climate change are also threatened by hunting.
“Global sentiment on this issue seems clear, as most every country has banned the trade and commercial export of polar bear parts,” Elly Pepper, policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council told EcoWatch. “Yet Canada continues to allow substantial harvest and trade. Their populations are perhaps key to the species[‘] climate change survival, making the country’s outlier stance all the more vexing.”
Polar bears face starvation from melting sea ice caused by warming temperatures. Over the past year, warming temperatures have reduced the amount of Arctic sea ice to record lows. A lack of ice means a lack of seals – the polar bears’ food source. Dwindling food supplies mean the bears have to travel greater and greater distances in search of food.
Researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada conducted research on the migration patterns of polar bears and found that bears have been arriving on shore earlier and leaving later, threatening their access to food. While bears are on land, they are fasting. Changes in the sea ice are forcing the bears to spend more time on land, where they can only rely on fat reserves to tide them over.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), despite opposition and declining populations, “the Canadian Territory of Nunavut recently tripled its hunting quota for the Western Hudson Bay population” and has proposed increasing quotas in two other populations. “It is widely acknowledged that quotas are being influenced by record prices for polar bear hides,” the IFAW report states.
Canada is one of 5 countries to adopt the Polar Bear Conservation Agreement in 1973. At that time, countries within the polar bears’ range – Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Russia – agreed to coordinate actions for the protection of polar bears. According to IFAW, Canada’s management of polar bear hunting quotas are in violation of the 1973 agreement because they exceed the recommended harvest levels set by scientists.
The Agreement states that each country “shall manage polar bear populations in accordance with sound conservation practices based on the best available scientific data.”
An IFAW policy brief states that although climate change is the primary threat to polar bear populations, “the international commercial trade in parts is the second biggest threat to the species, resulting in the deaths of as many as 600 bears a year.” Furthermore,
It is a fundamental tenant of conservation biology that in order to help species challenged by climate change, other population stressors (such as kills for commercial trade or hunting trophies) must be reduced. Current management of the species ignores this reality.
At the meeting in Moscow last week, ministers, national representatives, and the five states that are party to the 1973 agreement made commitments to help polar bears survive across their Arctic range.
“Canada’s claims at this conference that polar bear hunting is not harming polar bear populations are disingenuous,” Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International said at the meeting. “Canada’s own scientists are raising alarm about over-harvest not only in the past year but in the past three to five years.”
A key commitment made by the five countries last week is to work on managing the polar bears’ habitat in ways “that will take into account the Arctic’s shrinking ice, and increasing industrial interest” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports. It remains to be seen whether the countries will uphold their commitments.
In Canada, it seems the commitment to protect polar bears and their habitat will be a difficult one to keep, if the position of its environment minister is any indicator. Last year, Canada helped to defeat a US proposal to impose an international ban on the trade of polar bear parts and to reclassify the species as “threatened with extinction.”
In their opposition to the proposal, the Nunavut land claims organization claimed that polar bear numbers are increasing and that the population is very healthy.
In 2011, Russia partially lifted a ban on polar bear hunting, allowing the Chukotka region’s indigenous people to kill a maximum of 29 bears a year, including 19 females. Opponents felt the move would put too much pressure on the polar bear, which is already threatened by rampant poaching and a shrinking habitat, The Hindu reports.
Russian authorities defended the partial lifting of the ban, saying that the polar bear hunt is a traditional part of local Chukchi culture. However, hunters were not allowed to export the hides or sell the bear meat commercially.
Top photo via: Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. A heat-stressed polar bear in Hudson Bay, Canada tries to stay cool by digging and lying on the permafrost below.