Five circumpolar states strike new deal to protect polar bears

Inuit Circumpolar Council praises traditional knowledge working group


A new Circumpolar Action Plan on polar bears, like this one in Baffin Bay, aims to manage and protect polar bears by supporting international actions. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A new Circumpolar Action Plan on polar bears, like this one in Baffin Bay, aims to manage and protect polar bears by supporting international actions. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

(Updated 11:25 a.m., Sept. 4)

The five nations with polar bear populations — Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S. — reached a non-binding agreement Sept. 2 in Ilulissat, Greenland, on what the World Wildlife Fund calls the “first-ever circumpolar action plan” to protect and manage polar bears and their habitat.

The signatories — the so-called polar bear “range states” — will draft implementation plans and their progress reports and action tables will be made public, information in a Greenlandic backgrounder document says.

The key to the success of this non-binding plan, approved at a meeting that also included many indigenous representatives, is collaboration, the signatories said.

The Canadian delegation included Paul Irngaut of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Drikus Gissing of the Government of Nunavut, Frank Pokiak of the Inuvialuit Game Council, Basile Van Havre, director of conservation at the Canadian Wildlife Service and observers from Makivik Corp., the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Inuvialuit Regional Council.

Members of Greenland’s association of fishers and hunters, KNAPK, also attended the meeting.

“Nearly half of the world’s polar bear populations cross national borders, so international cooperation is necessary to ensure polar bears thrive long into the future”, Alexander Shestakov, the Global Arctic Program director for the World Wildlife Fund, said in a news release Sept. 3.

The ICC, in a statement issued Sept. 4, also praised the agreement, especially a commitment to create a traditional ecological knowledge working group that will provide input into polar bear management decisions.

“Inuit have a wealth of knowledge about polar bears, not only where they are and their numbers, but how the bears are adapting to the pressures from changing climate, mineral and energy exploration, development, tourism, contaminants and shipping,” said Duane Smith, the president of ICC Canada, who attended the meeting in Ilulissat.

“We have to invest in the research to understand the threats to polar bears and work with Inuit. It is only by using all the knowledge we have about polar bears that we will be able conserve this important Arctic species and to make the decisions required to maintain healthy polar bear populations and maintain our sustainable subsistence harvest,” Smith said.

ICC also said the five-nation agreement recognizes the right of Inuit to harvest polar bears under Canadian land claims agreements and Greenland’s legislation.

“Range states representatives heard the concerns of Inuit with regards to any management of polar bears populations that Inuit have fiduciary rights to harvest as agreed to under the land claims agreements in Canada and the home rule government in Greenland.”

The plan and its executive summary are not yet posted online.

In 1973, the five nations with polar bear populations signed an international agreement on polar bear conservation.

At that time, the largest threat to polar bears was over-hunting, so the agreement was mainly directed towards harvesting management programs and protected areas.

Since 1973, however, the nature of threats facing polar bears has changed, a backgrounder on the new action plan said.

The biggest threats are now the result of human activities that are changing the climate, says information posted on the Government of Greenland’s website.

These threats include everything from loss of sea-ice habitat to disease.

The new action plan wants to limit these threats through actions that are best coordinated at the international level, an overview of the plan says.

According to this overview, the plan identifies general actions over the next 10 years accompanied by a more detailed implementation plan for the first two years.

And, “wherever appropriate, the Range States will use both scientific knowledge and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Indigenous peoples’ knowledge gained over several generations) in the formation and implementation,” of the action plan.

The plan identifies and addresses seven threats that it says currently impact, or are most likely to have an impact, on polar bears and their habitat over the next 10 years:

• climate change;

• disease;

• human-caused mortality;

• mineral and energy resource exploration and development;

• contaminants and pollution;

• shipping; and,

• tourism and related activities.

To address these threats, the plan suggests actions such as communicating to the public, policy makers, and legislators around the world about the need to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions and managing human-bear interactions to ensure human safety and to prevent polar bear injury or mortality.

At the 2013 international forum the conservation of polar bears in Moscow, the five states with polar bear populations first committed to action on climate change, threats to polar bear habitat, and conflict between bears and people.

There, Canada and the four other polar bear range states also agreed to include “traditional ecological knowledge” from indigenous Arctic peoples in the 1973 agreement on polar bears.

“From the Inuit standpoint, it’s a big achievement,” Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s minister of environment and MP for Nunavut, then told Nunatsiaq News.

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