Polar bear expert responds to article by Nikita Ovsyannikov

Polar bear expert responds to article by Nikita Ovsyannikov

24 September 2010

The article on the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population by Nikita Ovsyanikov posted on the website may mislead the readers about the decision of the Russian-US Commission which allows subsistence hunting by the indigenous population in Chukotka and Alaska. The indigenous peoples there were granted the right to engage in subsistence hunting under the Agreement Between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the United States of America on the Conservation and Management of the Chukotka-Alaska Polar Bear Population.


It is written into the agreement that the indigenous peoples in Chukotka and Alaska depend on polar bear hunting for subsistence. The economic aspect of hunting is not the only thing that matters: the preservation of traditional nature management, culture, customs and traditions of the indigenous peoples living on both sides of the Bering Strait is also important. Therefore, the concluding words of Ovsyanikov's commentary that "a small group of lobbyists who have personal interests in the management of polar bears in their own way has been pushing their selfish interests through practically on the sly" sound offensive to the representatives of the Chukotka indigenous population, who championed their interests absolutely openly, rather than "on the sly". Alaskan indigenous people behaved in the same way.


Another inadequate argument put forward by Ovsyanikov is that polar bear subsistence hunting permitted in the United States as a traditional occupation, could hardly be considered as such since "indigenous people have adopted modern hunting methods and today chase polar bears in snowmobiles armed with high-powered rifles." Incidentally, whale, walrus, seal and polar bear hunters, not only in Chukotka and Alaska but also in Canada and Greenland, have long since been using modern rifles, rather than harpoons, as was the case hundreds of years ago.


The agreement prohibits the use of poisons, traps and snares to capture polar bears. Also prohibited is the use of airborne vehicles, large motorised vessels and vehicles to chase polar bears; hunting female polar bears accompanied by cubs less than one year of age, bears in dens, including bears getting ready to take to their dens or, conversely, fresh from their dens. Commercial bear hunting is also prohibited. The indigenous population may impose other restrictions, for example, on the timing and areas of hunting. These and a number of other restrictions demonstrate that the agreement provides not only for the management of polar bears but also for their conservation.


The author of the article misinterprets some essential points relating to the status of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. "The polar bear is a threatened species included on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species," Ovsyanikov writes. "The population of these animals has dwindled by 30% during the lifetime of three generations (45 years) as their natural habitat shrank and its quality deteriorated." First, the polar bear is referred to as a "vulnerable", not threatened, species on the IUCN Red List. On the Russian Red List, the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population falls within Category 5 as a species that has recovered. Second, Scientific Polar Bear Group specialists are misquoted: they did not say that the number of polar bears had dwindled by 30%; they have only forecast that such reduction is likely to occur in the next 45 years as they were guided by the models which are based on the scenario of continued climate warming and ice retreat in the Arctic in the 21st century.


I had also shared this widespread point of view until 2009, when a colleague sent me a study by a team of climate and sea ice specialists known both in Russia and abroad (Scientific Research in the Arctic, Vol. 2: Climate Change in the Ice Cover of the Eurasian Shelf Seas by Ivan Frolov, Zalman Gudkovich, Valery Karklin, Yevgeny Kovalev and Vasily Smolyanitsky from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, Nauka Publishers, St Petersburg, 2007, 158 pages). In my view, the book provides conclusive arguments that in this century changes in the climate and ice cover will go through cycles instead of being a one-way process. The authors forecast that the warm cycle will end by approximately 2015 or 2020 and will be followed by a drop in temperatures and, consequently, a spread of ice cover that will last approximately until the mid-2030s, when it will give way to another warm spell which, like the previous one, will be limited in time. This view is shared by a number of other reputable Russian and foreign scientists.


There are two different forecasts of the likely changes in the climate and ice cover in the Arctic and time will show which of them proves correct. However, to my mind, it would be wrong to firmly claim that polar bears face considerable reduction in their numbers due to the effect of global warming on the Arctic in the next few decades.


Any polar bear specialist is inevitably going to raise questions in connection with Ovsyanikov's commentary on the current condition of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. What were the author's sources of information when he put the number of polar bears living on the coast at not more than 500 to 600 or stated that "about 50% of the population moves with the ice towards the North Polar" and "the overall number of polar bears has not exceeded 1,500 in recent years"? Polar bears have never been tracked in order to determine their overall numbers and we do not know exactly how many of them stay on ice and how many on the coast. Still, it is clear that the ice condition to a large extent influences the seasonal distribution of polar bears. This distribution tends to change dramatically from year to year.


In the early 1990s I calculated the size of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population, which, in my estimate, is about 2,000 to 5,000. Let us analyse this issue more thoroughly as it provides a point of reference for determining the actual size of the population. The calculations are based on the percentage of breeding female polar bears (8% to 10%) and their number to be determined by tracking the number of "maternity" dens, which are largely concentrated on Wrangel and Gerald islands. In the mid-1980s, the number of polar bears on the two islands was estimated at 250 to 300. The population's next major breeding ground is the northern coast of the Chukotka Peninsula (the Bear Islands included), where about 50 to 120 pregnant females stay in dens for some time in order to bear cubs. As for Alaska's north-western coast, "maternity" dens are a rare sight there. Based on the total number of pregnant females as initial data for calculating the size of the overall polar bear population by using the abovementioned method, I have obtained the above figures. These figures only give a general idea of the likely size of the population, therefore, mindful of this and also of the likely negative impact of climate warming and poaching in Chukotka on the polar bear population, the IUCN group of polar bear specialists has recommended that the number of polar bears is approximated at 2,000 and that this number is declining. Strictly speaking, it would be more logical to write about the "probable decline in polar bear numbers" since only aerial surveys of the polar bear population, if conducted at least twice, with surveys being five to seven years apart, can give an idea of the changes in polar bear numbers.


Another of the author's arguments, the reduction in the number of "maternity" dens on Wrangel Island from 350 or 400 to 60 or 70, is not science-based either. A combination of aerial and land surveys is needed to determine the total number of breeding females on Wrangel Island, the way it was done in the 1970s. All we have for the recent years are findings from the tracking of dens on land in just one or two areas, which is not enough to make a judgment on the rest of the island's territory where pregnant females find it suitable to stay in dens. The reason for this is that the number and location of dens change every year depending on ice condition off the island's coast. For example, the recordings of dens made for many years at the model site in the Drem-Hed Mountains by the expedition of the National R&D Institute of Nature in conjunction with the staff of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve showed that the number of dens ranged between 17 and 63. Four to eight members of the expedition surveyed mountain slopes looking for open dens practically throughout the entire period when female polar bears open and leave their dens, that is approximately from the first week of March until April 15 to 20. No thorough work like this, as far as I know, has been conducted on Wrangel Island in recent years. Another important point is that den redistribution occurs every year between Wrangel and Gerald islands and between these islands and the mainland. Therefore, such indicator as "50 to 70 dens" cannot be used to characterise the condition of the population. Today, we know practically nothing about the number of "maternity" dens either on the islands or on the mainland.


The above goes to demonstrate that currently we do not have any evidence for "the deplorable condition of the polar bear population". Therefore, I have suggested in one of my published articles that the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population be moved from Category 5 to Category 4 (a population with undefined status).


The overall impression is that the author of the commentary, who did not attend the second meeting of the Russian-American Polar Bear Commission, has let his imagination break loose. This is evidenced, in particular, by such phrases in his commentary as "after arguing for a while they agreed to a quota of 58" (referring to the representatives of the indigenous population of Chukotka and Alaska who took part in the meeting). And how about this: "Amirkhan Amirkhanov from Russia's Natural Resources Ministry, who represented the Russian government on the commission, was the only commission member at the meeting who opposed the legalisation of subsistence hunting in Chukotka until reliable information about the status of the polar bear population was obtained, but he was outnumbered." Indeed, it was not easy for Amirkhanov to figure out how to tackle the issue of quotas in this situation. However, he took a decision and signed the document. I would like to emphasise that it was the correct decision, although it did not come easily to him.


Why is it impossible today to estimate the size of the polar bear population under review? There are two methods to track polar bear populations: aerial surveys and tagging plus repeated trapping. Aerial surveys are normally conducted on a ship with a helicopter on board and take approximately a month to complete (the ship navigates along the ice edge). The cost of such a study is at least $5 to 7 million. Aerial surveys of polar bears living along the coast and on the islands are also expensive. Expenses for attaching satellite-tracked radio tags to animals prior to surveys will add up to a total cost of research of roughly $8 to 10 million. That puts Russia's share of funding at $4 to 5 million, something that this country apparently cannot afford yet.


The other method - tagging plus repeated trapping - may yield results after approximately five to seven years of research and will also require the injection of considerable funds, although it is not as costly as the lease of a vessel with a helicopter on board. American experts have already been implementing this programme for three years now and plan to go on with it. The research will help obtain valuable data on many important biological parameters and offer the opportunity to use some data as indicators of the condition of the population.


The decision taken by the commission on the quota boils down to the following. A meeting of the Scientific Polar Bear Group involving Russian and American experts and several observers was held prior to the meeting of the commission. The scientific group had submitted two options to the commission for consideration: 1) a blanket moratorium on polar bear hunting; and 2) the introduction of the quota of 45 to be split evenly between Chukotka and Alaska. Had the scientific group been guided by a formula widely accepted abroad for determining the size of populations which are safe, it would have arrived at the quota of 91 (with the male-to-female ratio of 2:1), assuming the polar bear population numbers 2,000. However, the scientific group had recommended the quota of 45 (15 females and 30 males) with due account of the likely negative impact of climate warming and poaching in Chukotka on the polar bear population. During the discussion of this key issue at the meeting of the commission, the representatives of Alaska's indigenous population spoke in favour of boosting the quota. After the protracted discussion of this controversial issue the parties had agreed to increase the quota by 13. In practice this means that the number of females permitted to be hunted was increased by four. In this case the risk of harming the polar bear population will be reduced to a minimum, according to members of the scientific group present at the meeting, who informed the commission of their conclusion. After considering this issue, the commission decided on the quota of 58. This quota is subject to revision every year to allow for changes in the polar bear population.


Let us have a look at the other option the scientific group had submitted to the commission for consideration, namely, a moratorium on polar bear hunting in Alaska and the extension of the ban on polar bear hunting in Chukotka. This option was unanimously rejected by the representatives of the indigenous population of Chukotka and Alaska. For Alaska's hunters, the quota of 29 means tangible restrictions not only on the number of polar bears hunted (in this century they hunted on average 50 polar bears a year) but also restrictions regarding some demographic indicators (see above).


For hunters in Chukotka, the extension of the moratorium imposed in 1956 would have meant complete disregard for their interests, which are not only confined to economic benefits, as was mentioned above. Moreover, had such decision been taken it would have meant in fact that the indigenous population is denied a right to manage the polar bear population, including involvement in resolving the poaching problem. The Chukotka representatives present at the meeting had repeatedly raised this issue. Without their involvement any measures to crack down on poaching would be ineffective. Almost all settlements on Chukotka's northern coast into which polar bears usually wander are located far away from community centres and Anadir, capital of the Chukotka Autonomous Area. In the autumn or winter, they are often impossible to access for a moth or even more at a time. Any attempts to force the local authorities to act as law-enforcers would be futile as they also do not support the extension of the over 50-year-long prohibition on polar bear hunting. No doubt, control over people trying to smuggle polar bear skins should be tightened; however, settlements where such control can be exercised are few and far between. A question is often raised of the current scope of the polar bear poaching in Chukotka. Nobody can provide the exact figures. However, all the people I talked to about this problem claim that the incidence of poaching has markedly decreased in recent years.


Efforts to combat poaching in other countries, if they rely only on force and punishment, often misfire. Conversely, the active involvement of the user of a resource in the management of a population gradually starts producing positive results. Public organisations of the indigenous people in Chukotka have already engaged in these activities: they draw up action plans, prepare educational seminars, etc. Thus far, these are only the early stages of activities to involve the indigenous people in the management of the polar bear population but this process is important not only for the indigenous population but also for the Administration of the Chukotka Autonomous Area and law-enforcement agencies tasked with combatting poaching. The short-term objectives include minimising polar bear poaching, involving the indigenous population in the monitoring of polar bear hunting and upgrading the environmental awareness and education of the population. This will significantly facilitate the fulfillment by Russia of its obligations under the agreement which reads that the parties to it acknowledge the priority role of the indigenous people of Chukotka and Alaska in conserving the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population, welcome actions by this people aimed at promoting cooperation in the conservation and management of the above population and are willing to ensure that this people is fully involved in the implementation of the agreement and the efforts to comply with it.


The issue of conserving the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population is no less important than that of the sustainable use of the resource. It will be necessary to identify the areas where bears regularly stay in their dens and also their congregation sites on land with the aim of introducing special protection measures in such areas. As a rule, introducing such measures during the period when bears are most disturbance-sensitive will suffice. There are many success stories. On the initiative of the Russian mission at the World Wildlife Fund, which was supported by the municipal and regional authorities, a regional wildlife refuge was established near Cape Wankarem several years ago. Its main objective is to protect the walrus rookery and visiting polar bears. In order to preclude polar bears from wandering into human territory, local people set up a "bear patrol". It is very important to put in place close coordination of actions to prevent poaching between local communities, state nature conservation agencies, the police and the customs service. The list of nature conservation measures is longer than that but all measures will only be effective if the inhabitants of Chukotka, first of all, its indigenous population, take active part in their implementation. To make this happen, people must be interested not only in conserving the population but also in having a right to use this resource.

Stanislav Belikov, PhD in Biology, laboratory head at the National Research Institute for Nature Conservation, member of the IUCN group of polar bear experts