As the effects of climate change draw global attention to the Arctic, the United States is building upon its long tradition of international environmental leadership through its efforts to protect the polar bear.
The U.S. Department of the Interior recently listed the polar bear as a ‘threatened species.’ In addition, because the polar bear’s range spans the territories of all five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, we are also working closely with other countries.
Scientists estimate there are currently twenty to twenty-five thousand polar bears worldwide, up from only twelve thousand in the 1960s. Despite the doubling of the population, the polar bear is today imperiled by the shrinking Arctic sea ice it uses for hunting, breeding, and migration. Moreover, while the overall trend in recent decades showed a rising population, today that is true in only a few regions of the Arctic. In most areas, numbers are stable or in decline.
For over thirty years the U.S. has been a party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, along with Canada, Norway, Russia, and Denmark. The Agreement calls upon the polar bear range states to protect ecosystems and to manage polar bear populations based on the best available scientific data. These five range countries agreed to regulate hunting, protect denning sites and migration routes, and to initiate research concerning conservation of this iconic marine mammal.
The U.S. shares the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population with Russia. In 2007 President Bush ratified an agreement with Russia for the joint conservation of this population. This agreement actively involves indigenous representatives alongside national representatives from both countries in a new bilateral commission. The commission oversees habitat conservation, collection of biological information, and the effects of traditional indigenous hunting on the health of the overall population.
The U.S. also shares with Canada a polar bear population in the south Beaufort Sea. Earlier this year, American Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and Canadian Environment Minister John Baird signed a Memorandum of Understanding to both conserve polar bears and cooperate concerning future scientific research on the species. The agreement establishes an oversight group with representatives of both governments, Native or Aboriginal representatives from the U.S and Canada, and representatives from state and provincial/territorial bodies.
All of these initiatives taken together demonstrate the U.S. commitment to working at home and with our Arctic neighbors to protect polar bears.