Polar Bear Pact
STORY: After polar bear numbers plummeted in the Chukotka region of Siberia during the 1950s, the Soviet Union imposed a ban on polar bear hunting. Not even natives, who've hunted the bears for centuries, were allowed to harvest bears for subsistence. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the economic and political unrest ever since, natives and scientists worry that illegal hunting may be on the rise.
That's just one of the reasons the United States and Russia signed a treaty to jointly manage the region's highly nomadic polar bears that hunt seals on the frozen ocean separating the two countries. Rosa Meehan is the Division Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Marine Mammal Management Program in Anchorage, Alaska.
MEEHAN: "I think an important part of this agreement is the recognition that this is a population of animals that's shared between Russia and the U.S. and that to effectively manage them we need to get together with our Russian colleagues."
The treaty, signed in an ornate hall in downtown Washington, D.C., establishes an international commission that will set polar bear harvest levels for the region's indigenous natives, and decide research priorities. If the U.S. Congress and the Russian Parliament approve, the agreement will provide money to learn more about polar bears, such as exactly how many there are and where they go.
Scott Schliebe is a polar bear biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
SCHLIEBE: "Unfortunately, we do not have a solid database on the population here in western Alaska and the Chukchi Sea. Our concern today is that future harvests not exceed rates determined to be sustainable. We're also concerned that we coordinate on development activities that have potential to impact polar bears in this part of the world."
While the treaty seeks to protect polar bears, it also empowers native Eskimos of northwest Alaska and the Chukotka region of Siberia. Under the agreement, natives from both sides of the Bering Strait will help manage the polar bears they've hunted for generations. Charlie Johnson is the executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission in Nome, Alaska.
JOHNSON: "We accepted the possibility of a quota system that would be imposed upon us, in exchange for being involved in the direct management of polar bears. Additionally, we sought a native-to native agreement that would implement the treaty."
Johnson says there are important scientific questions that need to be answered, such as the effects of contaminants and the impact of climate warming on polar bears, which rely on sea ice to find and hunt seals. He says working with Chukotka natives will make getting answers to these questions that much easier.
JOHNSON: "The polar bear treaty does open up this opportunity. We in fact are now working with the traditional subsistence hunters' association of Chukotka to conduct a habitat use study on polar bears. Additionally we hope to document their traditional subsistence use of marine mammals. This polar bear agreement is really a stepping stone, and it's going to set the standard for other cooperative management for whales, walrus and other species we share."
While the treaty is ostensibly about polar bears, it's bound to have benefits its creators may not have anticipated. One is that it will bring together natives who share a similar cultureeven bloodlinesbut who haven't seen each other since the Cold War began more than 50 years ago.
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Charlie Johnson, Executive Director
Rosa Meehan, Division Chief
Scott Schliebe, Project Leader
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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Polar bears benefit from U.S.-Russia agreement [PDF; 508 KB] (News release on agreement)