The Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the organization of scientists that has attempted to monitor the global polar bear population since the 1960s, has issued a report indicating that there was no change in the overall global polar bear population in the most recent four-year period studied.
“The total number of polar bears is still thought to be between 20,000 and 25,000,” the group said in a press release published together with a report on the proceedings of its 15th meeting
20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide is exactly the same population estimate the group made following its 14th international meeting.
“The total number of polar bears worldwide is estimated to be 20,000–25,000,” the scientists said in the report they issued after that previous meeting.
The 15th meeting of the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group took place from June 29-July 3, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark—four years after the 14th meeting, which took place in Seattle, Wash., June 20-24, 2005. But the report on the 15th meeting and its conclusions about the polar bear population—including subsequent information that was developed through March 2010—was not published until this year (on Feb. 25, 2011).
The February report concedes that scientists still have limited scientific data about the polar bear population in many parts of the Arctic—lacking sufficient information to even determine whether the population is increasing or decreasing in 7 of 19 subpopulations.
“Reviewing the latest information available, the PBSG concluded that one of 19 subpopulations is currently increasing, three are stable, and eight are declining,” said the group’s press release on the report.
“For the remaining seven subpopulations available data were insufficient to provide an assessment of current trend. The total number of polar bears is still thought to be between 20,000 and 25,000,” it said.
The group said it viewed anticipated changes in the Arctic environment caused by “climate change” to be the greatest threat to the future of the polar bear.
“The PBSG renewed the conclusion from previous meetings that the greatest challenge to conservation of polar bears is ecological change in the Arctic resulting from climatic warming,” the group said. “Declines in the extent of the sea ice have accelerated since the last meeting of the group in 2005, with unprecedented sea ice retreats in 2007 and 2008.”
“The PBSG confirmed its earlier conclusion that unabated global warming will ultimately threaten polar bears everywhere,” it said.
At the same time, the report cited an American scientist who told the group that a research team had used a collar to track a polar bear that swam for more than 650 kilometers across the sea. “He described the extensive spatial data recovered from one particular collar that showed the bear swimming more than 650 km in the Beaufort Sea,” said the report.
Despite its concern that climate change could threaten the polar bear, the group also said it supported the right of human beings to “harvest” the bears.
“The PBSG recognizes that where habitats are stable, polar bears are a renewable resource, and reaffirmed its support of the right of aboriginal groups to harvest polar bears within sustainable limits,” said the group’s release.
In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the polar bear a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The declaration was not based on an actual decline in the polar bear population but on the government’s conclusion that future declines in Arctic sea ice will reduce the bear’s habitat and put it at risk.