Then and Now
Less than a decade ago, most populations of polar bears were considered healthy, even growing. But climate change has taken its toll on this Arctic icon. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now estimates that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears in the world, with populations in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway. Many of the populations are difficult to track accurately, but most signs indicate the total number of polar bears in the world is at or below 20,000 and diminishing.
Only two of the world’s 19 polar bear subpopulations—Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea—are found in Alaska, the only place in the U.S. they occur. Sadly, both of these populations are in decline. Climate change has had such a dramatic impact on polar bear populations that our children could be the last generation to see polar bears on U.S. shores.
Key Recovery Milestones
In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the polar bear in Alaska as threatened, the first listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due primarily to climate change. The decision was challenged by the State of Alaska, but in June 2011 a federal judge upheld the Service’s listing, mandating that the polar bear continue to receive the protections afforded by the ESA.
A key component of a listing under the Endangered Species Act is the protection of habitat considered critical to the recovery of the species. In November 2010, the Department of the Interior announced it would protect more than 187,000 square miles of onshore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea ice as critical habitat. This designation is essential to helping polar bears navigate the loss of sea-ice from climate change and other impacts to their habitat while providing clarity for future planning and development in the Arctic region.
In October 2010, the FWS initiated development of a polar bear conservation plan. Defenders has been an active participant in this process since its inception and will continue to contribute until the plan is completed.