Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) COSEWIC assessment and status report: chapter 9

9. Existing Status Designations and Protections

9.1 International Status Designations and Protections

Internationally, polar bear research and management are coordinated under the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears which was signed in November 1973 and came into effect on May 26, 1976 (also see Stirling 1988a; Prestrud and Stirling 1994). It prohibits unregulated sport hunting of polar bears and obliges each signatory to conduct research relating to the conservation and management of the species, the results of which are conveyed to each member nation. Member scientists of the Polar Bear Specialist Group meet every 3 to 4 years under the auspices of the IUCN World Conservation Union to coordinate research throughout the Arctic. Although responsibility for management of polar bears in Canada lies with the provinces and territories, the federal government on behalf of all jurisdictions signed the Agreement. Under the terms of the Agreement, the taking of polar bears is restricted to “local people” (which is interpreted in Canada to mean Aboriginal people or sport hunters guided by Aboriginal people) who harvest by traditional means and in accordance with sound conservation practices based on the best available scientific data. This Agreement was renewed indefinitely in 1981.

The polar bear was moved into a status of Vulnerable (equates to COSEWIC Threatened) from the status of Least Concern for the 2006 Red List of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the IUCN-The World Conservation Union (IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006; IUCN 2006). This move was in response to modelling of trends in sea ice extent, thickness, and timing of coverage which predicted dramatic reductions in seasonal sea ice coverage over the next 50 to 100 years due to climate warming (IUCN 2006), and recent demonstrations of and hypothesized impacts on polar bears (see Sections 4.2, section6 and section7). The reassessment was based on an expected worldwide reduction in polar bear numbers of at least 30% over the next 45 years, manifest in declines in area of occupancy and extent of occurrence (IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006). The uplisting recommendation was made given available data at the time and by unanimous consent by participating members at the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group Meeting in Seattle, WA, in June 2005.

Polar bears are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). Under CITES, any international shipment of polar bears or parts thereof requires a permit. Since July 1975, a permanent record of all polar bears, hides, or any other products legally exported from or imported to Canada has been maintained by the Government of Canada. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced on May 14, 2008, that the polar bear will be listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

9.2 Canadian Status Designations and Protections

Conservation and management of polar bears in Canada involves more than 10 agencies: 4 provinces, 3 territories, the federal government, plus the management boards established by land settlement claims. Discussion between jurisdictions to facilitate management decisions is co-ordinated by their Wildlife Directors and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Polar Bear Technical Committee (PBTC). The PBTC includes biologists from each jurisdiction and invited experts from user groups and other research organizations (such as universities) who have expertise with ATK or scientific research on polar bears. Each year, the PBTC, reporting to the Polar Bear Administrative Committee (PBAC), discusses the most recent research results to make recommendations on protection measures for the species to senior administrators and user groups.

In Canada, the PBTC conducts an annual review of the status of each subpopulation of polar bears and its sustainable harvest, and monitors the annual kill. The sustainable harvest of independent female polar bears (i.e., 2 years of age and older) for each subpopulation was, in the mid-1980s, estimated to be about 1.5% for most subpopulations (Taylor et al. 1987). These estimates of sustainable yield, which included the need to maintain a 2 male to 1 female sex ratio in the harvest, have been the basis for developing most quotas in Canada for the past 15 years (see Tayloret al. 2008d).

How harvests are currently allocated among subpopulations is a matter of debate. For example, the Government of Nunavut recently increased the combined harvest quota for the 12 subpopulations of polar bears found within the territory from 403 in 2004 to 518 in 2005, largely based on the perception by Inuit that some subpopulations increased under the historical harvest regimen (IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006; PBTC 2006). Although some increases in quotas have been supported by the findings of mark-recapture analyses (e.g., Gulf of Boothia; Taylor et al. 2008c), quota increases based on Inuit perceptions have also included harvests for subpopulations documented by western science to be in steep decline (e.g., Western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay, see Sections 6, section7.10, and section7.13).

Within Canada, while the governments of the provinces and territories have the authority for management, the decision-making process for some is shared with Aboriginal groups as part of the settlement of land claims. For example, the Inuvialuit have exclusive rights to harvest polar bears in the Yukon. Management of polar bears is coordinated through the Yukon and Northwest Territories governments and the Inuvialuit co-management boards established under the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA). In most Canadian jurisdictions, hunting seasons, quotas, and protection of family groups are enforced by law; only Manitoba prohibits the hunting of polar bears. Over 80% of the hunting of polar bears in Canada occurs in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, where management agreements and/or memoranda of understanding have been developed with local communities with the aim to ensure that all human-caused mortality is within the suggested sustained yield.

In Manitoba, polar bears are protected under the Wildlife Act and there is no hunting season. This designation also removes the right to kill polar bears under Aboriginal treaty rights. Bears may only be killed in defence of life or property. The province of Manitoba recently listed polar bears as a Threatened Species.

The polar bear is listed as a species of Special Concern on the Species at Risk List of the Ontario Endangered Species Act. Polar bears are also protected under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, and there is no hunting or trapping season.  Notwithstanding, Aboriginal people under Treaty #9 and interpreted as residing along the Hudson Bay and James Bay coast are permitted to harvest polar bears, including females with cubs and bears in their dens. Harvest reporting is voluntary in Ontario but is considered to be generally reliable because polar bear skins may not be sold until they have been sealed by the province. Quotas for each community that harvests polar bears have been enforced by the denial of seals to enable legal sale of hides and carrying over of seals to the next harvesting year (thereby reducing the following year's quota). Current quotas, however, are based on dated and inaccurate information and assumptions (M. Obbard, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Government of Ontario, letter to COSEWIC Terrestrial Mammals Specialist Subcommittee, February 1, 2007).

In Quebec, the polar bear is listed as “likely to become threatened or vulnerable,” according to the Liste des Espèces Fauniques Menacées ou Vulnérables au Québec, and legal designation is under review at the time of writing. Notwithstanding the potential for future changes in provincial designation, under the James Bay Agreement Inuit are allocated a “guaranteed harvest” of 62 bears annually. This means that the first 62 bears of an estimated sustainable harvest would be reserved for the exclusive use of Aboriginal people. This number is subject to conservation limitations, however, so if the sustainable level was determined to be less than 62, the lower number would prevail and all the animals taken would be guaranteed for Aboriginal use only. The guaranteed harvest level was determined solely from harvest statistics and was not based on an estimate of sustainable yield from a population estimate. The James Bay Agreement was signed in 1975, before it was realized that Aboriginal hunters from Quebec harvested bears from 3 different subpopulations (i.e., Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, and Davis Strait). There are no quotas currently in effect in Quebec although Aboriginal hunters have agreed to limit harvesting to current levels until assessments are done for the 3 subpopulations from which they harvest bears. When assessments have been completed and sustainable harvests have been determined, Quebec hunters are expected to enter into co-operative management agreements with other user groups that share each subpopulation. Females with cubs-of-the-year and bears in dens are not protected by legislation in Quebec (because no provision was made for this in the James Bay Agreement), but there is local agreement among hunters not to kill these bears.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Inuit have exclusive rights to harvest 6 bears/year (males and females without cubs) under a quota system along the Labrador coast (see Brazil and Goudie 2006). The killing of bears by anyone for any other purpose, other than defence of life and property, is prohibited. The polar bear is listed as Vulnerable under the Newfoundland and Labrador Endangered Species Act. This designation requires the development of a management plan (Brazil and Goudie 2006) and it allows for the development of additional regulations for the protection of polar bears, if deemed necessary for conservation purposes. It is planned that in the near future polar bear issues will be managed through the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board comprised of Inuit and federal and provincial government representatives. Management of polar bears in the Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve will be coordinated through a Co-operative Management Board as part of the Labrador Inuit Park Impacts Agreement for the Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve.

9.3 Risks from Lack of Protection/Trends in Current Management

Current Canadian and International programs of polar bear management--which primarily focus on harvest--raise a number of concerns for the future conservation of polar bears: 1) there has been a tendency for managers to focus on maximizing hunting opportunities through harvesting subpopulations at or close to the estimated maximum sustainable yield, and in some cases a lack of taking a precautionary approach to harvesting; 2) in some cases there is allowance for the hunting of polar bears without binding quotas to user groups; 3) existing agreements appear slow to respond to new population information, including instances of over harvest; 4) in most cases there remains a lack of co-management agreements for the conservation of shared subpopulations of polar bears; 5) effects of climate change on polar bears are not incorporated into any harvesting plans.

Routine management near what is believed to be the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for some subpopulations presents a risk to polar bear conservation, especially in consideration of uncertainty in estimates of abundance, reproduction, and survival (Caughley 1977; Taylor et al. 2005, 2008d). For example, the Viscount Melville Sound (Section 7.4) and M'Clintock Channel (Section 7.7) subpopulations were both depleted by over-hunting when abundances and quotas were overestimated. Recovery of these subpopulations will take many years at reduced quotas (Tayloret al. 2002, 2008d). The estimated MSY for subpopulations of polar bears in Canada is annually computed by the PBTC. Estimates of MSY are based on a meta-analysis conducted in the 1990s that assumes the same reproduction and survival for polar bears across their range in Canada. This formula is MSY = N ´0.015/Pr[F], where N = total population number, 0.015 is a constant derived from a meta-analysis to estimate survival and recruitment rates for average Canadian polar bears, and Pr[F] = proportion of the harvest that is female (assumed to be 0.333, i.e., 2M:1F sex-selective harvest). Unfortunately, such deterministic estimates of MSY do not adequately reflect true risks of harvests to populations. For example, the current estimated maximum sustainable harvest for polar bears in Norwegian Bay is 9 bears/year (PBTC 2007). However, harvested-PVA that takes into account sampling error in initial subpopulation size, variance about vital rates due to sample size and annual environmental variation (survival, reproduction, sex ratio), and demographic stochasticity, suggests that even a quota of 4 bears/year may be unsustainable (Table 6).

Harvesting without quotas in subpopulations within or shared by Canada constitutes a threat to the conservation of polar bears. For example, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act does not allow government restrictions on the annual number of polar bears killed by Alaskan Aboriginal hunters (Inupiat) for the Southern Beaufort Sea until the subpopulation, which is shared with Canada, has been depleted. In Canada, the harvest of polar bears by Inuit in Quebec is not limited by any quota or season restriction. Although lack of regulated quotas does not automatically mean that polar bears will be over-harvested, given the high demand for hunting opportunities the risk to subpopulations of polar bears from over-hunting where quotas do not uniformly limit harvest is readily apparent. Recent over-harvests in Kane Basin and Baffin Bay are testament to the dangers of hunting polar bears without all jurisdictions having quotas in a shared, co-management structure (Sections 7.12 and section7.13).

In Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador polar bears are managed under Aboriginal land claim management systems. These systems are relatively new and identify a detailed management process that includes consultations with affected hunters and their organizations and formal decisions from land claim Wildlife Boards (e.g., memoranda of understanding between parties). The consultation process can be lengthy and delay any management response, although this is likely to improve with time as these systems mature.

Co-management agreements between jurisdictions that share polar bears include an international agreement between the Inuvialuit and Inupiat for the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation (Section 7.2), and user-to-user agreements between the Inuvialuit and Kitikmeot Hunter’s and Trappers Association (Regional Wildlife Organization) for the shared Northern Beaufort Sea and Viscount Melville Sound subpopulations. Inter-jurisdictional agreements are lacking for 6 subpopulations shared among user groups within Canada or internationally (i.e., Western Hudson Bay, Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, Kane Basin, and Baffin Bay), and this may present a risk for polar bear conservation. For example, despite the regulated quotas in place for Baffin Bay by Nunavut and, since January, 2006, for Greenland, lack of a co-management agreement between these jurisdictions presently allows for a clearly unsustainable harvest of up to 190 bears (Table 6, Section 7.13; Taylor et al. 2005). Without a co-management agreement between Nunavut and Greenland, polar bears in Baffin Bay (and Kane Basin) are likely to continue to be over-harvested (Table 6, Sections 7.12 and 7.13)

Finally, no harvest programs currently accommodate anticipated changes in rates of survival and reproduction due to effects of climate change on the biology of polar bears, including reductions in food carrying capacity. In their recent review, Stirling and Parkinson (2006) suggest that a precautionary approach be taken to the harvesting of polar bears and that the potential effects of climate warming be incorporated into planning for management and conservation. Until research aimed at incorporating climate change into harvest models is carried out, it will be difficult to accurately predict sustainability of harvests. Sustainable hunting in the context of climate change will be essential to the conservation of the polar bear in Canada.

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