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Polar Bear

Overview

  • Status
    Vulnerable
  • Population
    20,000–25,000
  • Scientific Name
    Ursus maritimus
  • Weight
    800–1,300 pounds
  • Length
    6–9 feet
  • Habitats
    Arctic sea ice

Polar bears are classified as marine mammals because they spend most of their lives on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. They have a thick layer of body fat and a water-repellant coat that insulates them from the cold air and water. Considered talented swimmers, they can sustain a pace of six miles per hour by paddling with their front paws and holding their hind legs flat like a rudder.

Polar bears spend over 50% of their time hunting for food, but less than 2% of their hunts are successful. Their diet mainly consists of ringed and bearded seals because they need large amounts of fat to survive.

The total polar bear population is divided into 19 units or subpopulations. Of those, the latest data from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group show that eight subpopulations are in decline and that there is a high estimated risk of future decline due to climate change.

Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.

The survival and the protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues for WWF.

 

Map of Polar Bear Populations

This map shows the 19 subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic.

Polar Bear Population Decline a Wake Up Call for Climate Change Action

Forty percent. That’s the stunning population loss for polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea. The news comes from a new study linking the dramatic decline in this polar bear subpopulation in northeast Alaska and Canada to a loss of sea ice due to climate change.

polar bear Beaufort Sea

Why They Matter

  • Importance of polar bears

    Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Over thousands of years, polar bears have also been an important part of the cultures and economies of Arctic peoples. Polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly impacted by climate change—serving as an important indicator species.

Threats

  • Population 20,000–25,000
  • Extinction Risk Vulnerable
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Polar Bear

The loss of sea ice habitat from climate change is the biggest threat to the survival of polar bears. Other key threats include polar bear-human conflicts, overharvesting and industrial impacts.

Effects of Climate Change

Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals, rest and breed. Every year, the summer sea ice is decreasing in size and melting for longer periods of time. Bears must move long distances to stay with the rapidly receding ice.

In some areas, they may come ashore when ice melts and rely on fat stores until the ice refreezes so they can go back out to hunt. Many polar bears now suffer from malnutrition. Others—especially females with cubs—face starvation.

Traditional prey species may be less accessible in a new sea ice environment, and seals that use the ice are predicted to fare poorly in the warming Arctic region.

Climate change is also resulting in more habitat fragmentation. As Arctic ice melts, polar bears are affected by increased shipping activities and a rise in opportunities for oil and gas development.

 

Polar bear- Human Conflicts

As climate change forces polar bears to spend longer time onshore, they come in contact more often with Arctic coastal communities and others working in the Arctic. Unfortunately, these interactions sometimes end badly for both humans and bears.

Industrial impacts

In the Arctic, most industrial development has been on relatively small pieces of land. As summer sea ice retreats, a new ocean is emerging, which allows more opportunities for industrial development at sea and on larger parcels of land.

At the same time, the retreating ice is resulting in more polar bears spending longer periods on land for denning. These factors combined are putting polar bears and industrial activities on a potential collision course.

Offshore petroleum installations and operations in the Arctic are expected to increase in number. This expansion would likely affect polar bears and their habitat in many ways, including the following:

  • Contact with spilled oil would be fatal.
  • An oil spill would affect the entire food chain.
  • Noise generated from onshore and offshore oil operations would cause disturbance.

Increased Arctic shipping represents a risk to polar bears. As traffic by barges, oil tankers and cargo ships in Arctic waters increases, so do the risk of oil spills and human disturbance to polar bears.

Unsustainable Hunting

Many Arctic areas have strong polar bear management and monitoring plans. But there are a few places where unsustainable hunting appears to be happening, including unreported and illegal hunting. Hunting is also occurring in areas where the subpopulation status—stable or declining—is uncertain.

 

What WWF Is Doing

As climate change forces polar bears to spend longer time onshore, they come in contact more often with Arctic communities. Unfortunately, these interactions sometimes end badly for humans and bears. In Russia and Alaska, WWF addresses this challenge by supporting local efforts to protect people and polar bears. Watch this video to learn more about the benefits of involving local people to protect polar bears and communities.

Protecting the Last Ice Area of the Arctic

Scientists believe that a natural safety net of ice in the High Arctic of Canada and Greenland covering 320 million acres—or twice the size of Texas—may persist longer than the ice anywhere else. Since 1992, WWF has been working with partners to sustainably preserve the rich biodiversity of this region.

Now, WWF works with local people to establish an appropriate management plan for this “last ice area” in Canada and Greenland. This plan could provide many benefits, such as conserving habitat for Arctic ice dependent species and protecting the cultural heritage and economies of local communities.

Addressing climate change

WWF advocates directly for governments to recognize and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears.

At meetings with governments whose countries are in the polar bear range, WWF has successfully pushed for a statement formally recognizing the urgent need for an effective global response that will address the challenges of climate change. WWF has also successfully advocated for the creation of an international polar bear management plan.

Reducing conflict

WWF supports community projects in Alaska and Russia to prevent unintended and potentially fatal encounters between polar bears and people. Local polar bear patrol teams help keep towns and bears safe. Better lighting near public places, electric fencing, bear-proof food storage containers and warning plans for when bears enter communities all help reduce conflict. 

We bring Arctic communities together to share their expertise on effective nonlethal deterrence methods. We advocate for deterrence tools such as pepper spray to protect both people and bears. Such methods are proving effective. For example, in northern Canada's Hudson Bay area, for the first time in recent years, no polar bears were killed to protect the community during 2012.

Monitoring populations

Scientists are currently monitoring the conditions and movement of polar bears in the US, Canadian and Norwegian regions of the Arctic. WWF and our partners are working to understand the impact that different threats, such as climate change and the expansion of industry in the Arctic, are having on different polar bear populations.

For many years, we have run a polar bear tracker, using data from WWF-supported researcher teams to monitor some of the animals by satellite. By tracking these bears, scientists can map a polar bear's range and examine how habitat use may change in response to shifting sea ice.

This information reveals changes and adaptations over time. WWF also provides funding for polar bear researchers to travel to Russia and the US to share and exchange scientific information about polar bears with other researchers. WWF recently worked with scientists at SPYGEN, a DNA specialist firm, to pioneer an innovative tool that can extract DNA from a polar bear footprint.

Reducing industrial impacts

WWF’s goal is to ensure that wherever industrial development takes place, it is sustainable and does not damage wildlife populations and ecosystems to any great extent. We offer technical expertise on oil spill prevention and response. We also advocate for the highest development standards through national and international venues.

WWF collaborates with scientists, conservationists and local people to oppose oil and gas development in areas whose ecological value is far too great for risking exposure to spills.

To help maritime vessels stay clear of ecologically fragile places, WWF is preparing sensitivity maps for areas of the Arctic. We have also offered best practices for shipping in the Arctic and continue to work at the International Maritime Organization on a polar code that would make Arctic shipping safer.

Projects

  • WWF and The Coca-Cola Company Team Up to Protect Polar Bears

    WWF and The Coca-Cola Company are working to protect the Arctic. Building upon Coca-Cola’s support, since 2007, of WWF’s efforts to protect polar bears, together we are working to raise widespread awareness and funds to help protect the polar bear and its habitat.

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