BREAKING: The U.S. Takes the Lead in Restricting Polar Bear Hunting and International Trade

Big, big news out of Washington, D.C. today on the topic of polar bear conservation.  The United States, responding to NRDC, our allies, and more than 50,000 NRDC members, announced that it would propose placing the polar bear on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Sounds wonky, I know, but it is really the most important step in stopping polar bear hunting around the world. As I explained here, “uplisting” the polar bear (moving it from Appendix II of the Convention to Appendix I) will greatly restrict both the commercial trade in polar bear parts and, potentially, trophy hunting of polar bears. 

President Obama, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, particularly, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar all deserve enormous credit for taking this step, which wasn’t easy and is sure to irritate our friend to the north, Canada.

You see, right now Canada is the only country that allows both the trophy hunting and a commercial trade in polar bear parts.  About 300 polar bears are exported in commercial trade every year and, historically, about 100 polar bears are taken by wealthy trophy hunters (it’s not clear how much, if at all, these two numbers overlap).  Canada is also where two-thirds of the world’s polar bears can be found.  Most importantly, Canada looks like the one area of the world where they may be able to survive in the wild as the Arctic melts. Whatever we can do to protect those populations is central to the species’ long-term survival.

I’ve been waiting for this news for a while.  This summer, my colleague Zack Smith and I travelled to Geneva to discuss polar bear conservation with the members of CITES’s Standing Committee and since then we’ve been reaching out with our allies to urge not just the United States, but also Norway, Russia, and the European Union to support increased polar bear protections.  Those last three players will be key now.  Canada has already said they oppose any increased international protections for polar bear trade and trophy hunts, so the positions of the other polar bear “range” states (Russia, Norway, and Greenland/Denmark) are very important.

Throughout the debate that is sure to follow, however, we need to be mindful that some native villages in the Canadian Arctic derive economic benefits from the polar bear hunt and trade.  We need to protect their ongoing subsistence use of polar bears, while urging the international community to provide economic assistance to those communities that will be the hardest-hit.

Throughout it all, NRDC, the Humane Society International, Defenders of Wildlife and the International Fund for Animal Welfare will all be working towards ensuring that polar bears get the protections they need with the next full meeting of the Convention is held, this March in Doha, Qatar.