Sustaining polar bear populations in the face of climate warming

by University of Washington, College of the Environment
October 27, 2021

Polar bears capture the imagination like few other wild animals. Adorable and roly-poly as snow-white cubs, they grow into massive hunting machines, supremely adapted to the harsh landscapes of the Arctic. Iconic the world over, many of us only dream of the chance to see one outside of the zoo.

Polar bears have also become a symbol of an environment that’s changing unfavorably. Images of skinny bears, hungry from a lack of food because of diminished sea ice, have become a rallying cry in conservation to aggressively curtail human-induced climate warming. Many are actively seeking strategies that would, among other things, protect the bears.

But it’s not only the bears that are at risk; people who rely on a healthy population of bears for subsistence harvest are facing new challenges too. For millennia, native people living in the Arctic—including the Iñupiaq of northern Alaska—have depended on the bear culturally and as a source of food and materials. A key question remains: how do we protect both bears and the traditional practices connected to them, when warming temperatures are already driving immense change?

That’s where UW Applied Physics Laboratory’s Eric Regehr and numerous colleagues, including aquatic and fishery sciences’ Sarah Converse and Nathan Hostetter, come in. In a recent paper published in Ecological Applications, they provide information on an appropriate level of polar bear harvest that meets cultural needs, while accounting for both climate warming and the health of the Chukchi Sea polar bear population.

“There’s a treaty between Russia and the United States for management of polar bears in the Chukchi Sea,” says Regehr. “A group of bears lives in both countries, and under the treaty we have an obligation to study this resource and manage accordingly. One element to consider is subsistence harvest.”

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