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Overview of Polar Bears

Sarah R. Morgan


Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
2007
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Overview of Polar Bears

 

Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in North America, with Kodiaks being the largest land carnivores in the world. In the wild, polar bears are found in the Arctic, in the United States, Russia, Greenland, Canada, and Norway. In Canada, their range is limited to the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba and the territories of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut while in the United States the polar bears are limited to Alaska. The worldwide population is estimated to be around 22,000-27,000 with individuals distributed in about 19 subpopulations. It was important to divide polar bears in such subpopulations from a management perspective as it simplifies communication and jurisdictional issues.

There exist several threats that risk leading to the extinction of polar bears by 2100. The most important of these threats being climate change, oil and other development, pollution, hunting and self-defense killing, intraspecific predation, tourism in the Arctic, and capture for public display. Legislation has been enacted to counter these threats at the state, federal and international level in the five Arctic states: Greenland, Norway, the United States, Canada and Russia.                                                                                                                                                                               

Of these threats, climate change is the most important. With the current melting trends, ice packs are fragmenting and distancing themselves in the open ocean rendering it more difficult for polar bears to travel between them and leading to polar bears drowning. Also, it has been suggested that such fragmentation may lead to isolating populations which could have negative genetic repercussions on the polar bear populations. Finally, with climate change, polar bears are dying of starvation and having difficulty reproducing.

Hunting and self-defense killing is the second most important threat. Polar bears are killed for a variety of purposes. Natives typically kill the polar bear to use it for food, clothing, and handicrafts, but also to sell its pelt which can bring lots of money. Non-natives hunt the polar bear for the thrill and then proudly display its pelt and head piece in their lofts or elsewhere as a trophy. Intraspecific predation is a phenomenon whereby an animal kills the same member of its species. For example, a polar bear hunts another polar bear. Although this is not very common, it does happen and remains a notable factor in polar bear population decline.

Tourism in the arctic may affect polar bears by disrupting and destroying their habitat.  Additionally, capture for public display, where polar bears are captured and transferred to zoos and ecological parks, is important because it removes a polar bear from its environment reducing the wild polar bear population. On the other side, it provides the animal with a home in a regulated and controlled environment where death is more limited to disease or natural causes. 

Oil and gas development affects polar bears in a variety of ways by polluting the ocean with hydrocarbons, reducing and disturbing their habitat with associated infrastructure and increased maritime traffic. Pollution both from remote and proximate sources may lead to severe health problems and even death of the polar bear.

Despite the recognition of these various threats, the legal framework surrounding polar bears is extremely complex. On one hand we have five countries, Canada, Norway, Greenland, Russia and the United States which all have different state and federal laws that are all enforced to varying degrees, if at all. On the other hand, we have a series of international agreements, albeit mostly soft-law, which some countries are signatory while others are not.

Climate change is a worldwide problem. At the state level, the strategy has been to adopt mostly non-enforceable initiatives and programs. At the international level, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in order to help in guiding the world towards curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

With respect to oil spills and pollution, the United States adopted the Oil Pollution Act that removed the liability limit for oil spills and made it a requirement that tankers, which transport oil to the United States, have double hull construction. This led to changes at the international level, and today, all oil tankers are required to have double hull construction. To prevent against development of land in the arctic, the governments at state and federal levels have created parks. In these, conduct is regulated to disturb as little as possible polar bears residing therein.

Pollution is inherently difficult to detect and regulate because of several factors: Not only are the effects and interactions of pollutants largely unknown, but pollutants travel great distances and therefore their origin is not always quite certain. Moreover, the industries creating the pollution are rich and will oppose regulations. Some examples of methods to regulate pollutants are: phasing out of coal powered plants, regulation of industry operation time and adoption of international agreements banning the creation and use of harmful chemicals.

Hunting can be legal or not (poaching). Most states restrict the hunting of polar bears to natives however Canada is the only Arctic state that allows non-natives to hunt polar bears with certain restrictions.  Essentially, a non-native hunter must be accompanied by a native guide to hunt the polar bear, and they may only hunt in a designated area. While poaching is an identifiable problem, no information exists on the number of polar bears being killed via these means. Self-defense killing on the other hand is allowed generally when one's life or anotherís is threatened. Means to regulate hunting typically involve setting quotas, restricting the hunt to bears of a certain age or sex and, at the international level, controlling export and import.

Obviously, it is not possible to control intraspecific predation by use of legislation. Tourism and its effect on polar bears, however, can be regulated.  Governments have sought to diminish the impact of tourism in the Arctic on polar bears by limiting where tourists can go, what they can do, and by providing tourist with guidelines of how they should act should they encounter a polar bear.  Finally, legislation governing the capture of polar bears for public display generally limits who can take the polar bear, how many polar bears can be taken, and the quality of life of the polar bear experiences once in captivity.

The issues surrounding the conservation and management of polar bears are complex. Significantly, the principal concern is climate change. With climate change, the polar bearís environment is changing drastically, and the question remains whether polar bears will be able to adapt or not.  Polar bears are very specific to their environment by their structure, their hunting methods, food source and their reproduction. For example, a polar bearís white fur enables it to camouflage with snow and ice while hunting and denning and its multiple fatty layers insulates it from the cold air and water. Can such an animal so specific to its habitat survive climate change? It is clear that although a legislative framework exists, it is largely inadequate. An important step would be in creating a more uniform framework among the arctic states. However, uniform and effective enforcement would also be required, perhaps by creating a transnational polar bear enforcement organization. It is certain that a change is needed as the current legislative framework is certainly not the most efficient means of managing one of the worldís most unique and majestic animals.

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