Polar Bear Range Moscow Meeting Focuses on Habitat Loss

A two-day meeting in Moscow that concluded December 6 brought together polar bear scientists, wildlife managers, technical experts and representatives of native peoples of the Arctic to discuss current and future challenges faced by the polar bear.

The meeting of the polar bear range states — the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and the Russian Federation — was convened under the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears.

“The future of polar bears is uncertain, and it’s imperative that the polar bear range states take aggressive action and work together to address the threats they face,” said Geoff Haskett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) regional director and head of the U.S. delegation. “We made progress at this meeting, identifying information gaps and areas where we could collaborate more effectively to protect and sustain polar bear populations. I am encouraged by the shared recognition of the need for engagement of indigenous peoples and cooperation of the global community to ensure the long-term survival of polar bears.”

While significant declines have not yet been observed in most populations, USFWS said on its website December 6, declining sea ice caused by human-induced global climate change is projected to have a significant effect on most polar bear populations.

Habitat loss restricts the access of polar bears to seals, their main prey. Sea ice has been reduced by 8 percent in the past 30 years alone, USFWS said, while summer sea ice has been reduced by 15 percent to 20 percent. “The best available scientific information indicates that polar bear populations will suffer significant declines over the next 45 years, with many populations facing extirpation,” the agency said.

The Moscow meeting focused on identifying information needs to enable effective management of polar bears throughout their range. In addition, trade and trade enforcement issues and the need to cooperate in combating polar bear poaching were discussed, USFWS said. A working group will be established to provide recommendations to the range states on these issues.

Attendees also highlighted the importance of cooperation with other international organizations, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Polar Bear Specialist Group and the Arctic Council. All of the range states committed to implementation of national action plans for polar bear conservation and completion of volume 1 of the Circumpolar Action Plan for Polar Bears by the next range states meeting, which will be held in Greenland in 2015.

In the United States, the polar bear has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2008 and protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972. The primary conservation threat is the loss — decrease in area — of sea ice due to global warming, as well as a drop in the quality of sea ice as it melts and refreezes.

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