A recently signed agreement brings together the U.S. and Russian governments and subsistence hunters in Alaska and Chukotka, Russia, to coordinate management of the iconic polar bear.
While the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted to protect and conserve marine mammals including polar bears, the law also recognizes the intrinsic role that marine mammals have played and continue to play in the subsistence, cultural and economic lives of Alaska Natives.
The new agreement works to balance the needs of Alaska Natives and native people of the Russian Far East with conservation and management requirements for the polar bear.
A polar bear at Barter Island in Alaska. (Photo: Christopher Putnam/USFWS)
As evidence of this, every year Alaska Native hunters legally take about 30 polar bears from the Chukchi Sea subpopulation—part of the Alaska-Chukotka population the United States shares with Russia. The new agreement for the first time establishes a legally enforceable quota on the harvest of bears in the United States.
In Chukotka, Russia, however, polar bear hunting has been banned since 1956 and has led to an unsustainable and unmanageable illegal take in the region.
The agreement is the culmination of decades of work by former Alaska Nanuuq (Polar Bear) Commissioner Charlie Johnson, who passed away in April, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Service biologist Jim Wilder and Alaska Native partner Rhonda Sparks of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) recently traveled to the Chukchi Sea villages of Shishmaref and Wales to discuss the details of the agreement with residents. Nearly 200 people attended the meeting in Shishmaref (population 563), and more than 40 attended the one in Wales (population 145). There were many questions—and applause—for the work of the Service and the ANC. The hunters in attendance generally seemed to accept the quota.
The villages of Gambell and Savoonga are the next stop for Wilder and Sparks. This will be another chance to discuss the polar bear harvest management plan, taking limits, and other polar bear issues with residents. More visits are planned over the next year to inform Alaska Natives about the new agreement and its polar bear quota.
Our partnership with Russia offers an opportunity to ensure sustainable and manageable legal take of the polar bear—and assist its long-term survival.