Polar Bear

Facts

  • Status
    Vulnerable
  • Population
    22,000-31,000
  • Scientific Name
    Ursus maritimus
  • Weight
    800–1,300 pounds (males), 300-700 (females)
  • Length
    6–9 feet
  • Habitats
    Arctic sea ice, coastal lagunes and habitats
Polar Bear Population Update Map 2019

Click here to view larger map image

Polar_Bear_Populations4_1.1... This map shows the 19 subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic.

Polar bears are the world's largest terrestrial carnivore. Under conservation laws, polar bears are classified as both marine mammals in countries like the United States because they spend most of their lives on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, and terrestrial mammals in other countries. Polar bears are found in the Arctic, with a few populations ranging into the sub-Arctic regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Considered talented swimmers, polar bears can sustain a pace of six miles per hour by paddling with their front paws and holding their hind legs flat like a rudder. They have a thick layer of body fat and a water-repellent coat that insulates them from the cold air and water.

Polar bears spend over 50% of their time hunting for food. A polar bear might catch only one or two out of 10 seals it hunts, depending on the time of year and other variables. Their diet mainly consists of ringed and bearded seals because they need large amounts of fat to survive.

Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for traveling, hunting, resting, mating and, in some areas, maternal dens. But because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change–the primary threat to polar bears Arctic-wide–polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008. As their sea ice habitat recedes earlier each spring and forms later each fall, polar bears are increasingly spending longer periods on land, where they are often attracted to areas where humans live.

The survival and the protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues for WWF. In October 2019, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Polar Bear Specialist Group released a new assessment of polar bear populations showing that the number of polar bear subpopulations experience recent declines has increased to four, with eight populations still being data-deficient. The good news is that five populations are stable while two have been experiencing an upward trend.

Fun Facts:
  • 40kph: The polar bear's top speed
  • 42 razor sharp teeth: With jagged back teeth and canines larger than grizzly teeth, they pack quite the bite
  • 30 cm wide paws: The size of a dinner plate! A natural snowshoe that helps the bear trek across treacherous ice and deep snow
  • 3 eyelids: The third helps protect the bear's eyes from the elements
  • 4 inches of fat: Under the bear's skin to keep it warm
  • Black skin
  • Transparent fur
  • Blue tongue

Polar bears, climate crisis, and oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Arctic Refuge has been a place undisturbed by development. But in 2017 Congress approved opening the Coastal Plain of the Refuge to allow for oil and gas drilling. WWF has been vocal in its opposition for a host of reasons, and there is one significant bit of logic even Fish and Wildlife agrees with—the climate crisis makes the future of the region uncertain. Oil and gas development only compounds the problem.

Two young polar bears

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.

  • Today, polar bears are among the few large carnivores that are still found in roughly their original habitat and range–and in some places, in roughly their natural numbers.

  • Polar bears are an integral part of the Arctic ecosystem and the food web for Indigenous peoples who have hunted polar bears sustainably for millennia. But beginning in the 1700s, large-scale hunting by European, Russian and North American hunters and trappers took place, raising concerns about the future survival of polar bears.

  • Although most of the world's 19 populations have returned to healthy numbers, there are differences between them. Some are stable, some seem to be increasing, and some are decreasing due to various pressures

  • Polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly impacted by climate change–serving as an important indicator species. By 2040, scientists predict that only a fringe of ice will remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland when all other large areas of summer ice are gone. This "Last Ice Area" is likely to become important for polar bears and other life that depends on ice.

  • A projection of sea ice in the archipelago, supported by WWF, shows that much of the region is facing significant ice loss in the coming decades–with potentially serious consequences for polar bears. Global polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050. This needs to be addressed immediately if polar bears and other species unique to the region are to survive.

Threats

  • Population 22,000-31,000
  • 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 (Ursus maritimus) mother and two cubs standing on fractured ice floe. Svalbard, Norway.

The loss of sea ice habitat from climate change is the biggest threat to the survival of polar bears. Other concerns for polar bears include lethal response to human-polar bear conflict, toxic pollution in the environment, and direct impacts from industrial development, such as disturbance of maternal dens or contact with an oil spill, and potential overhunting of some subpopulations.

Polar bear- Human Conflicts

As Arctic sea ice thins and retreats, increasing numbers of polar bears are spending longer periods in the summer open-water season along Arctic coastlines. Here, their powerful sense of smell attracts them to human communities: garbage, stored food, dog teams, and animal carcasses bring them into greater conflict with Arctic people.

As powerful predators, polar bears pose a major risk to human life and property. Throughout the polar bear's range, attacks on humans and property continue to rise. In recent years, more than 20 direct attacks on humans have been reported within the polar bear's range.

WWF is supporting community initiatives to ensure they can live safely alongside the Arctic's top predator.

Effects of Climate Change

Due to climate change the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover by 14% per decade. Compared to the median sea ice cover recorded between 1981-2010, we have lost about 770,000 square miles, an area larger than Alaska and California combined.

  • Fewer opportunities to feed
    Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals, rest, breed, and store energy for the summer and autumn, when food can be scarce. Sea ice now melts earlier in the spring and forms later in the autumn in the bears' southern range, like Hudson Bay and James Bay in Canada. As the bears spend longer periods without food, their health declines. For every week earlier that the ice breaks up in Hudson Bay, bears come ashore roughly 22 pounds lighter and in poorer condition. In the US, polar bears have experienced significant changes to seasonal variability and availability of sea ice habitat. For example, polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea have recently experienced about twice as many reduced ice days over continental shelf waters than polar bears in the Chukchi and Bering Seas nearby. As a result, polar bears studied in the Chukchi and Bering Seas were larger, in better condition, and had higher reproduction rates likely since they had more access to food and did not have to fast for as long in the spring as those living in the southern Beaufort Sea. Bears must move longer distances to stay with the rapidly receding ice. In most areas, they come ashore when ice melts and rely on fat stores until the ice refreezes so they can go back out to hunt. 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.

  • Fewer cubs
    Some polar bears may suffer from malnutrition. In extreme cases they may face starvation–especially females with cubs. Unhealthy bears can lead to lower reproduction rates and extinction in certain locations. Scientists have found the main cause of death for cubs to be either lack of food or lack of fat on nursing mothers

  • Habitat fragmentation
    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, that WWF is currently fighting against.

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, which WWF is currently fighting against.

At the same time, the retreating ice is resulting in more polar bears spending longer periods on land.

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:

  • Reducing the insulation of polar bear fur from spilled oil.
  • Poisoning from ingesting oil and eating contaminated prey.
  • Disturbance.
  • Destruction of habitat.
  • Impacts on entire food webs.
  • Oil spreading to areas outside of the Arctic

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.

Potential For Overhunting

Many Arctic areas have strong polar bear management and monitoring. But there are a few places where unsustainable hunting appears to be happening, including unreported and illegal hunting.

What WWF Is Doing

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) female with a single young cub, only a few months old, northern Svalbard, Norway, June

Addressing climate change

WWF has a dedicated worldwide team working on issues of climate and energy, working regionally, nationally, and internationally.

  • We support research on climate change effects, and show the way forward by funding research and analysis on alternative energy.
  • We advocate for governments to recognize and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears.
  • WWF has successfully pushed for a statement by countries with polar bear populations, formally recognizing the urgent need for an effective global response to address the challenges of climate change.
  • WWF has successfully advocated for the creation of a circumpolar polar bear management plan.

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

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.

Keeping polar bears separate from people is better for both, since polar bears that wander into communities pose a risk to people, and people often respond by killing the bears. WWF has responded with a variety of locally-led initiatives to help reduce conflict.

  • We've supported the design of steel food storage containers, so that local people can continue to store their food outside but protect it from marauding bears and electric fences to separate bears from dog teams.
  • WWF is supporting polar bear patrols to deter bears before they get into communities.
  • Throughout the Arctic, we convene workshops for people to share their experiences and successes in keeping the peace between people and bears.

Monitoring populations

If we want to build meaningful management plans for polar bears, we have to know more about them.

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 continues to work with scientists at SPYGEN, a DNA specialist firm, to pioneer an innovative tool that can extract DNA from a polar bear footprint.

WWF also supports polar bear research that tells us about their "vital signs" like body condition, reproduction, and cub survival. In addition, we support research on population trends in polar bear populations, which are even more important than hard numbers. WWF has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to polar bear surveys, and continues to do so.

Valuing Knowledge

Knowledge comes from many places. In the Arctic, we speak of our work as being "knowledge-based" rather than solely "science-based." Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have a store of ecological knowledge based on their own observations of the environment and on information handed down over generations.

WWF encourages the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to inform management policies in the Arctic. We have supported several projects that collect this form of knowledge, helping to provide a more rounded knowledge base. WWF has also supported research on TEK in the US and Canada, which provides invaluable information for conservation and management of the species.

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.

Protecting Critical Habitat

WWF recognizes the urgency of protecting habitat for polar bears as they rapidly lose their sea ice habitat from climate change.

  • We support the identification and protection of important polar bear habitat (denning areas and movement corridors, seasonal feeding areas/times, and key resting areas during the ice free period).
  • We are supporting research to identify high value habitat areas—areas where the bears feed, den, and give birth— and work with partners to conserve these places.

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.
  • WWF advocated for the creation of Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area in Canada's High Arctic and the Russian Arctic Park on the northern part of the island of Novaya Zemlya above Russia. We are involved in many more such plans.
  • WWF has provided extensive financial support to the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, known as the "polar bear nursery" for its high concentration of polar bear maternity dens. WWF won Wrangel Island as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and in 2012, successfully advocated for the significant expansion of a marine buffer zone around Wrangel Island and its smaller neighbour, Herald Island.

Promoting Sustainable Tourism

While we want to see local people benefit from tourism, no one benefits if tourism drives away the sights the tourists have come to see.

WWF spent many years working with tourism operators in areas inhabited by polar bears to find ways to limit the impact of tourists on the bears and their habitat.

  • WWF produced a set of principles for Arctic tourism. These principles have been adopted by some tourism operators and have formed the basis for tourism codes of conduct in the Arctic.
  • WWF is collaborating with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to assess the specific impact of polar bear tourism.

Ensuring Sustainable Hunting

WWF supports the right of Indigenous peoples to continue to sustainably hunt local animals.

Timeline of polar bear conservation

  • Before 1972

    Beginning in the 1700s, large-scale hunting by European, Russian and North American hunters and trappers took place, raising concerns about the future survival of polar bears. Unregulated commercial and recreational hunting continued until the 1970s.

  • 1972

    The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was signed, and included polar bears as one of many species protected under the new legislation.

  • 1973

    Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and the former USSR signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat, strictly regulating commercial hunting.

  • 2005

    The polar bear was upgraded from Least Concern to Vulnerable by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

  • 2013

    Ministers and other leaders from the five polar bear range states met in Moscow for the first International Forum on Polar Bear Conservation. The leaders made significant commitments to address issues of polar bear habitat, research and trade. This event was supported by WWF.

  • 2008

    The US Government classified the Polar Bear under its Endangered Species Act (ESA).

  • Today

    Today, polar bears are among the few large carnivores that are still found in roughly their original habitat and range--and in some places, in roughly their natural numbers.

    Although most of the world's 19 populations have returned to healthy numbers, there are differences between them. Some are stable, some seem to be increasing, and some are decreasing due to various pressures.

    Status of the polar bear populations
    Updated 2019 with data from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialists Group

    • 4 populations are in decline
    • 2 populations are increasing
    • 5 populations are stable
    • 8 populations are data-deficient (information missing or outdated)
  • In the future

    By 2040, scientists predict that only a fringe of ice will remain in Northeast Canada and Northern Greenland when all other large areas of summer ice are gone. This "Last Ice Area" is likely to become important for polar bears and other life that depends on ice.

Experts

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