The U.S. and Russia Team Up to Save the Polar Bear

President Obama used his tour of Alaska last week to highlight the human faces of climate change in the Arctic.

At the same time, representatives of the five nations with territory above the Arctic Circle—all signatories to a 1973 treaty to preserve polar bears—were grappling with how to stop climate change from decimating the iconic predator.

At their meeting in Ilulissat, Greenland, this week, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, and Russia agreed to a new 10-year plan for protecting the species and its habitat across the entire Arctic.

“After 40 years of cooperation, this is the first time when parties came together to agree on one circumpolar action plan for polar bears,” said Alexander Shestakov, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Program.

“It doesn’t mean for 40 years they weren’t doing anything,” he added. “But there was a real need for a pan-Arctic approach.”

Under the plan, scientists will collaborate to get a better estimate of current polar bear numbers; assess the impacts of climate change, pollution, and disease on their survival; and meet every two years to report on their progress.

“It is positive from our point of view that they established some mechanism for reporting and accountability,” Shestakov said.

When the five nations signed the first polar bear conservation treaty in 1973, uncontrolled hunting was the biggest threat to the bears’ survival.

In 2015, the major threat is warming temperatures across the Arctic, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. The sea ice that is the primary habitat of polar bears and the only habitat of their preferred prey, ice seals, is melting, and it will continue to thaw for decades if not centuries to come.

Diminishing Arctic sea ice has stranded polar bears on land, far from the ice seals that are their main prey, for longer periods of the year. The situation has driven more polar bears to risk human settlements in search of food. “A polar bear can be a danger for people,” Shestakov said, “but in recent years people have become much more dangerous to bears.”

The five nations this week committed to jointly tracking and analyzing these encounters in what Gert Polet of WWF-Netherlands described as “the first range-wide database for any species” in the hope of devising ways to curb them.

Ocean habitats important to polar bears and other wildlife, areas that were once almost inaccessible to humans for most of the year, are now seeing increased industrial activity such as transnational shipping traffic, as well as new oil and gas prospecting.

Shell Oil’s summer drilling expedition in the Chukchi Sea, near an important marine feeding ground called Hanna Shoal, would have been impossible at the time the polar bear conservation treaty was signed.


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