In order to preserve the polar bear population, Russia will not use its hunting quota

In order to preserve the polar bear population, Russia will not use its hunting quota

2 August 2011

Members of the Russian-U.S. Polar Bear Commission have summarised the results of the commission's third meeting, which was held from July 27 through July 29 at Russia's Natural Resources Ministry.


Members of the Commission discussed the bilateral agreement on preserving the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population, which inhabits the areas of the Chukchi and Bering Seas. They confirmed a joint quota of 58 polar bears per year. The quota will be split evenly between the two countries, and will include all cases of death of the animals. The quota is set in order to regulate the number of animals killed in the United States. In Russia, the polar bear is listed in the Red Book, and hunting it has been prohibited in the country since 1956.


The commission announced that the multi-year quota system will be used in order to manage hunting of the polar bear in the United States, starting in 2013.


A joint communication group has been established in order to provide information on the commission's work and achievements in the conservation and management of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. Also, a Russian-U.S. plan for polar bear research will be developed together with recommendations on how to protect the population from human-induced factors and climate change. A joint programme will be prepared for carrying out scientific research of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population.




Efforts continue to implement the strategies laid out in the Russia – US bilateral agreement on preserving the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. The third meeting of the Russian-American Commission took place from July 27 - 29, 2011 in Moscow. Prior to this Commission meeting, a joint research working group held another meeting on July 26, 2011.


At the meeting, the research working group agreed on a number of recommendations, which it then put forth to the Polar Bear Commission. Everyone in the group was of the same mind that the long-term preservation of the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population is essential. I think everyone would agree that the extinction of the polar bear would cause irreparable damage, not only to the Arctic and the culture of the native population, but to global culture as well. However, a difference of opinion remains among members of the research group pertaining to the consequences of today’s decisions, and the risk to the environment caused by polar bear hunting. This commentary reflects my personal understanding of the issue at hand. The views expressed below have been openly voiced by members of the research working group and the Polar Bear Commission, and are familiar to participants in past discussions.


The research working group has supported further development of the quota system, which aims to engage local residents in an effort to preserve and regulate the Chukotka-Alaska polar bear population. The maximum annual kill quota of 58 bears, one third of which can be female, was established as an accepted reference point in the long term quota system developed by the American side (jointly by the Alaska Nanooq Commission and US Fish and Game Department base kill quota) in their work over a period of many years.


 This means the following. Establishing a limit on the number of animals killed each year within American territory is carried out through the perennial quota system, similar to that of the International Whaling Commission that limits whale hunting by the natives. There are no quotas on the Russian side, however, because the hunting of polar bears is prohibited by federal law. In an attempt to preserve the polar bear population, the current decision is more effective than simply allowing the unregulated hunting of bears by the locals. The implementation of a quota on the American/Alaska territory will set a maximum for the number of animals allowed to be killed per year. The quota system will also allow a certain amount of flexibility in the maximum number of bears killed, depending on the current state of the polar bear population. The quota takes into account all polar bears hunted annually, including those killed by poachers.                     


It should be clear, however, that this decision is the result of a political compromise. These quotas are set with many unknowns about the current state of the polar bear population and the number of bears killed illegally each year. According to polls conducted by the locals themselves in various settlements, the number of bears killed on the Chukotka territory could be as high as 80 per year. At the same time, the agreement stipulates that the quota must be established annually and must be based on reliable scientific data. Meanwhile, these data do not currently exist! It should be obvious that with the decline in the polar bear population, even the death of a single bear is an irreparable loss. The phrase, “it may be salvageable,” as was used while calculating the quota at the last meeting of the commission in March 2010 in Anchorage, is simply word play. There are no data to suggest the stabilisation of the polar bear population, or even a slight improvement in the number of polar bears inhabiting the Arctic. The model that was used in 2010 to calculate the quota is purely speculative. They established that there are currently 2,000 bears, 1,000 of which are female, and that the annual growth of the female population is estimated to exceed 4%! The fact that polar bears who hunt in the spring in the Chukotsk Sea appear to be in good physical condition, and continue to breed -- which has been confirmed by our observations on Wrangel Island and by American researchers in the Alaska section of the Chukotsk Sea -- is insufficient reason to assume population recovery.  Melting ice has a negative impact on polar bears, and the further shrinking of the polar bear's main ice habitat is forecasted. Studies conducted on Wrangel Island, the main breeding spot of the Chukotka-Alaska bear, reveal that there are currently no more than 70 female bears on the island, while during the early 1990s, there were between 350-400.


The 2010 model mentioned above demonstrates that even with generous population estimates (1,000 female bears and an annual female population growth of 4%) an annual reduction of the population by 19 female bears will lead to a substantial decrease in the population in 10 years.. With a reduction of 15 female bears per year, the population will begin to diminish within 20 years; even if no female bears are killed, the population will decrease in 30 years. I want to emphasise that this takes into account the unconfirmed 4% population growth. Should the population decline, then the loss of even one bear would be irreparable. The question is, what will our great-grandchildren and future generations think, especially the Chukotka and Alaska natives, if the legacy that we leave them is that of an Arctic without polar bears? Will they approve of our decisions today to continue hunting polar bears amid conditions of global climate change and technical progress that leave large predators with no room under the sun?


I have one more comment about the oft-repeated thesis that the 56-year-old polar bear hunting ban in Russia has deprived the Chukotka locals of the opportunity to preserve their traditional culture, which is inextricable from their polar bear hunting and thanksgiving rituals. This thesis about the loss of rights and opportunities is a lie. Starting in 1975, Chukotka residents could obtain a polar bear hunting permit (according to the Council of Ministers’ decree # 986, passed on December 4, 1975) that allowed exclusive bear hunting for cultural purposes, as outlined by the International agreement of 1973. The permit could be obtained by the local population for bear hunting in accordance with their traditional hunting methods and the rights granted to them by law. One could receive permission simply by applying for a hunting permit. In all these years, not a single permit has ever been applied for or issued. Obviously there was no need for one. In the Soviet era, local settlements received abundant supplies, and the sale of bear-skin rugs was closely monitored by the authorities and prohibited by law. Only recently has there been a call to legalise hunting, and not just for the preservation of cultural values. The thesis about lost rights and irreparable damage to local cultures has been imported from Alaska and is simply used as propaganda.


The modern world and our living conditions, including of those in the Arctic, have drastically changed. With our access to the technology of an advanced civilisation, how can we demand the exclusive rights to hunt an animal on the brink of extinction? I hope that Chukotka and Alaska residents will take the mission to preserve polar bears seriously. A reason to be optimistic can be seen in the fact that in 2010, only 12 bears were hunted in Alaska, as compared to an average of 36 animals killed from 2000-2011. Among them were 7 male and 3 female bears (the sex of the two remaining bears was undetermined). The question is simply, what is the cause of this decline in hunting? Is it the result of conscientious self-restraint, or is it simply that the availability of polar bears has decreased?

Nikita Ovsianikov, PhD (Biology)    
Deputy Director of the "Wrangel Island" State Nature Reserve
Member of
IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, member of the Russian-American Commission research working group.