Iconic symbols of the Arctic, polar bears are distributed across the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States). The worldwide population is estimated to be 22,000 -25,000 bears. There are 19 populations, two of which occur in the United States: the Southern Beaufort Sea stock, shared with Canada and the Bering/Chukchi Sea stock, shared with Russia.
The most significant threat facing the long-term survival of polar bears is habitat loss due to climate change. Projected reduction in the extent and thickness of sea ice in the polar bear’s range will have direct (habitat loss and degradation) and indirect (reduced prey availability) effects on polar bears. Earlier melting of sea ice in the summer and later formation of sea ice in the fall will result in greater reliance on terrestrial coastal areas. In the United States, polar bears are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The MMPA prohibits the “taking” of polar bears. However, special exceptions allow Alaska Natives to continue traditional harvest practices for subsistence purposes and to create handicrafts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for managing U.S. polar bear populations under the MMPA.
On May 15, 2008, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing is based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat. This loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, the standard established by the ESA for designating a threatened species.
There United States engages internationally on polar bears primarily through two international agreements. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears between Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States (the “Range States Agreement) prohibits the hunting, killing or capturing of polar bears subject to specific exceptions for indigenous subsistence needs. It also calls for cooperation and consultation among the countries on research involving conservation and management of polar bear populations. In September 2015, the “Range States” adopted a Circumpolar Action Plan which provides a means of coordinating the management, research and monitoring of polar bear across its range and ensures that the Range States share common goals and approaches to conservation efforts.
In addition, the United States and the Russian Federation jointly manage the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear population through the 2000 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population. The Agreement establishes a commission comprised of representatives of the United States and Russian Government as well as the indigenous populations dependent on polar bears. The Commission meets annually and establishes a sustainable harvest level for the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population, which is evenly divided between the United States and Russia.