On Friday, September 21 the United States announced the ratification of a bilateral agreement for the long-term conservation of the population of polar bears shared between the United States and Russia.
The treaty, formally titled the "Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population," unifies American and Russian management programs that affect this shared population of bears. Notably, the treaty calls for the active involvement of Native people and their organizations in future management programs. It will also enhance such long-term joint efforts as conservation of ecosystems and important habitats, harvest allocations based on sustainability, collection of biological information, and increased consultation and cooperation with state, local, and private interests.
This treaty enhances and fulfills the spirit and intent of the 1973 multi-lateral Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears among the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark (for Greenland), and Canada by allowing a sustainable harvest by Alaska and Chukotka Natives, but prohibiting the harvest of females with cubs or of cubs less than one year old. It also prohibits the use of aircraft and large motorized vehicles in the taking of polar bears and enhances the conservation of specific habitats such as feeding, congregating, and denning areas.
Polar bears typically occur at low densities over vast areas of the Arctic. Current estimates of the world's 19 separate populations range from 20,000 to 25,000 bears. Two populations of the bears occur in Alaska: the southern Beaufort Sea population (about 1,500 animals), shared with Canada; and the Alaska-Chukotka (Chukchi Sea) population (approximately 2,000 bears), which is shared with Russia. Polar bears and polar bear hunting are important to the cultures of Native people in all of these countries. Today, habitat loss, illegal hunting, and, in particular, the diminishing extent, thickness and seasonal persistence of sea ice pose the most serious threats to polar bears. As a result of such concerns, the polar bear was proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in January of this year. A decision on the proposed listing is scheduled to be announced in January, 2008.
"This agreement is a testimony to years of cooperative conservation efforts among biologists and Native peoples from the United States and Russia," said the Service's Alaska Regional Director Tom Melius. "It protects the ability of the Native people of both nations to continue their traditional ways of life, while helping ensure that healthy populations of one of the earth's most magnificent marine mammals will continue to wander the arctic ice for generations to come.?
Several joint research and management efforts between the United States and Russia have been successful in the past. However, until recently the U.S. and Russia have managed the shared Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population independently. In recent years a reportedly sizable illegal harvest has occurred in Russia, despite a ban on hunting that has been in place since 1956. In Alaska, subsistence hunting by Natives is allowed as long as this does not affect the sustainability of the polar bear population. The Russian government is prepared to enact a decree which would legalize a sustainable harvest by Chukotka Natives and give this Agreement the force of law in Russia. Each country would then have the right to one half of a jointly-determined annual harvest limit.
On October 16, 2000, the U.S. and Russia signed the bilateral agreement on the conservation and management of the shared Chukchi/Bering Seas polar bear population. In July 2003, the Senate, through a unanimous vote, provided its advice and consent. Legislation to implement the treaty was passed during the 109th Congress and signed into law (P.L. 109-479).
Further information about polar bear management in Alaska, and on the proposed Endangered Species Act listing of polar bears worldwide, can be found at: " ">http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/issues.htm.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 97-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 548 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices, 64 Fishery Resource Offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.