Credit: Rune Dietz
Polar bears are harvested in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and parts of eastern Russia (Chukotka area) under provisions set by the 1973 Agreement. The numbers taken are regulated by quota in most subpopulations, however, there are no legal limits to the number taken in some jurisdictions (see PBSG Proceedings for details). Annual harvest is between 500 and 700 bears or 2-3% of the world population of about 25,000 bears and is thought to be sustainable. Harvest levels are informed by the estimated size of the subpopulation. Harvest activities are closely monitored (number, sex and age of kill) in most areas to ensure that subpopulations are harvested within the sustainable yield. Females with young are protected from harvest. The harvest of polar bears is biased towards males (about 60-70%) and hunters are encouraged to take males when possible to conserve the reproductive potential of the population.
Most polar bears are killed by Indigenous people and this hunt has an important cultural role. The financial return from the sale of polar bear hides is also an important income for local people. Sport hunting of polar bears only occurs in Canada and these hunts form a part of the quota assigned to a community. Sport hunting can be a major source of income for remote settlements and the financial return from the hunt greatly exceeds that of the hide value. Sport hunts are often not successful and because a license for sport hunting cannot be re-issued, the allocated quota is often below the sustainable harvest. Polar bears taken in hunts are used as food in some communities. Hides and skulls are either sold commercially, converted to handicrafts, or used privately. In Greenland, polar bear pants are popular with the hunters. All international trade in polar bear parts is governed by CITES.
In the Norwegian Arctic and western Russian area, polar bears are protected from all forms of harvest except problem or defence kills. Defence and problem kills are inevitable when polar bears and people occur together, although these outcomes can be reduced with proper precautions and training (e.g., proper disposal of garbage in field camps). Poorly planned camps and improper garbage disposal can result in needless killing of bears.
Mortality from set-guns (a self-killing trap with bait attached to the trigger of a gun) and hunting from ships and aircraft have been stopped as a result of the 1973 Agreement. While many polar bear subpopulations are likely regulated by harvest, most are well managed and hunting does not pose a serious threat. In areas where over-harvest is suspected, management action will typically involve an increase in monitoring and inventory efforts or enacting harvest controls to minimize potential impacts.
Poaching is not thought to be a major concern for polar bears, although the extent of the illegal trade in Russia is uncertain.
Polar bears have very low reproductive rates due to delayed maturation, small litter sizes, long mother-offspring bond, and variable but often high cub mortality. Low reproductive rates means that population growth rates are low and, therefore, if a subpopulation is substantially reduced, recovery be long. This is particularly so for subpopulations that are harvested annually, where it may take many years or even decades for the population to return to its original size even if harvest is reduced or paused.
Small populations of all species are particularly vulnerable to over-harvest. In some areas, polar bears have extremely small home ranges and good habitat may be limited. Under such conditions, most of the subpopulation may be concentrated in a small area. Therefore, it is possible to maintain a high harvest rate until the population is greatly reduced in numbers. Such situations existed in Viscount Melville Sound and the Svalbard Archipelago.
Over-harvest is an ongoing concern, especially for subpopulations where there is little to no information on population size. An additional concern is that population inventory programs to update numbers occur relatively infrequently in some areas so if the harvest rate is above the sustainable level, the population may be reduced before the next inventory is made. Fortunately, managers and researchers are working hard to ensure that all polar bear harvest is done in a sustainable manner. Recent development of co-management agreements and greater involvement of local people and hunters is improving the management of polar bears. Compared to the situation in the 1960s and 1970s, polar bear harvest management is vastly improved.
Recently, polar bear harvest management has begun to shift towards more conservative management with the recognition that information needed to manage a population is imperfect. Understanding the risk associated with a range of harvest management options is an important development for polar bear conservation. As threats such as pollution, climate change, tourism, and oil development are better understood, there will be more changes in how polar bear harvest is managed. Clearly, if reproduction or survival rates are affected by climate change or pollution, manager and hunters will have to alter their harvest accordingly.