By Susan McGrath
for National Geographic Polar Bear Watch
In Barrow, on the northern coast of Alaska, the sun sets at five o’clock on October 31, and the temperature typically drops into the single digits.
This doesn’t faze the town’s schoolchildren. They dress up and go trick-or-treating door to door just as American kids do everywhere. Visitors might notice a higher level of supervision here, though—armed wildlife agents patrolling on ATVs to keep polar bears from trick-or-treating the kids.
Welcome to life in polar bear country.
Elsewhere in the world people may be composing the polar bear’s epitaph, but in coastal northern Alaska the great white bears are still a part of everyday life.
Native hunters still pursue their millennia-old tradition of hunting polar bears for food and fur. And the odd bear strolling through a town or village is a common sight—an increasingly common one, as climate change shrinks summer sea ice.
The bears are drawn to bone piles on land, where locals dump the remains of bowhead whales harvested for subsistence. (On the plus side from an economic standpoint, the bones also now attract a few tourists hoping to see bears.)
These days all polar bear news seems to be bad news.
The Arctic may be ice-free every summer in as few as 30 years, experts predict, and when ice re-forms in winter it will be thinner, and there’ll be much less of it.
The polar bears’ ability to survive in a blue-water Arctic is still uncertain, but the outlook is certainly bleak.
Far and away the biggest danger to polar bears is climate change. But the U.S. agency charged with protecting them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), has no direct power to address climate change.
The legislative bodies with that power—such as the U.S. Congress—seem paralyzed by competing interests, political gridlock, and denial.
The natural reaction is to turn to the more immediate—if very much the secondary—conservation challenge for polar bears: people killing them, both for reasons of public safety and for the subsistence harvest.
If polar bears face extinction from habitat loss within the century, this thinking goes, doesn’t it make sense to stop all killing of polar bears now?
Intriguingly, the answer appears to be no, at least in the case of western Alaska. So while the FWS currently is tackling the issue of people killing polar bears, its approach may come as a surprise.
FWS biologist Eric Regehr calls this “real-world conservation,” and success relies on government and Native peoples working as equal partners. Real-world conservation stays firmly rooted in science, but with a clear view of conditions prevailing in polar bear country.
Here’s the challenge: In some parts of the Arctic, such as western Hudson Bay and the southern Beaufort Sea, bears are already starting to show the effects of climate change. They’re skinnier and have fewer cubs, and fewer of the cubs survive to adulthood.
Studying Healthy Populations
But such declines aren’t evident in every part of the polar bears’ range.
In the Chukchi Sea in western Alaska, biologists find healthy polar bears producing a bumper crop of cubs. “It’s such rich habitat that, despite significant sea ice loss, the animals still appear to be thriving,” Regehr says.
Regehr is fresh ashore from the sea ice himself, where this spring he sedated, examined, and weighed 68 polar bears (including a record-setting 1,390-pounder) before releasing them back into the wild.
These add to the growing number of bears studied in the Chukchi Sea since 2008 as part of a multiyear research program to understand the ecology, distribution, and demographics of this population.
Regehr’s data show that polar bears in the Chukchi appear to be as healthy as they were 20 years ago.
“If climate change continues as projected, it’s likely that in years to come the number of polar bears you can sustainably harvest in the Chukchi will decrease,” Regehr says, “but we’re not there yet.”
Considering Subsistence Traditions
“The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act recognizes the importance of traditional, subsistence harvest and can only limit it in the direst of circumstances,” Regehr explains.
In “direst” lies the crux of the matter.
While many conservation-minded people in the Lower 48 assume stopping all polar bear harvesting now must be a good idea, shutting down the culturally important subsistence harvest while bears are still abundant—and increasingly visible in some populated areas—would surely backfire, Regehr believes.
What’s more, in the vast, roadless, icy vastness, hunting limits would be nearly impossible to enforce.
The approach that will work for both polar bears and polar people, Regehr and others contend, is to use these next few years to lay the groundwork for the challenges ahead.
At the moment there is no legal quota for subsistence harvesting of polar bears.
The key is getting hunters, communities, and regional agencies to accept a harvest quota and to participate in its enforcement.
Cooperating for Sustainability
The data show that 58 polar bears a year can be sustainably harvested from the Chukchi population today.
FWS and its Native polar bear management partner, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, are working together to phase in that quota over the next couple of years, building community awareness and mutual trust as they go.
But there’s another wrinkle in this already complicated story: Polar bears are among the most mobile four-legged animals on Earth, and the Chukchi Sea bears range freely between western Alaska and Chukotka, Russia.
So if it’s to be meaningful, the Chukchi bear quota must be shared between the U.S. and Russia. In this, the Native Alaskans and the FWS represent a rare, bright light.
Twenty years ago Native leaders, aware of the shared polar bear population, initiated a joint polar bear treaty between Russia and the U.S., along with their respective federal partners.
Today coastal Alaskan Natives have a cordial and productive relationship with their Chukotkan counterparts.
“We work closely with Native hunters in Chukotka,” says Jack Omelak, executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission. “We’ve been helping indigenous residents there get involved meaningfully in their own resource management.”
In Russia, all polar bear harvesting has been illegal since 1956, though unofficial reports put the number of bears killed outside the law as high as 100 a year.
“The challenge we’re now all working toward together,” Regehr says, “is to reduce the legal take of bears in the U.S. and cut out illegal take in Russia, replacing it with a regulated and sustainable harvest. The net effect will be fewer bears taken and the establishment of a strong framework for conservation in the future.”