As I’ve discussed before, after climate change, the biggest immediate threat to polar bear conservation is overhunting, which is fundamentally driven by the demand for polar bear products (rugs, boots, jewelry) and the desire of trophy hunters to bring back a prize.
In Canada alone, where roughly two-thirds of the world’s polar bears can be found, over three hundred bears are legally hunted each year, mostly to feed the commercial and trophy hunting trades. Many of the populations these bears are taken from are listed as declining already (often, to be fair, because of climate change) and some are recognized as overhunted.
Until polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, much of this demand for polar bear trophies came from the United States. At one point, nearly 60% of trophy hunters, who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to kill and take home a bear, were Americans.
But the Endangered Species Act listing changed all that. Once polar bears were protected by the Act, it became illegal for U.S. hunters to import their trophies back into the United States under another law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). That didn’t sit well with U.S. based trophy hunting organizations, like the Safari Club International, who went to court, claiming that listing the polar bear shouldn’t automatically ban trophy imports under the MMPA. NRDC and other conservation and animal welfare organizations intervened to defend the polar bear’s protections
On Monday, the Safari Club lost. In a lengthy opinion U.S. District Court Judge Emmett Sullivan found: “Sport hunting is not among the narrow, enumerated exceptions to the MMPA’s ban on taking and importing depleted marine mammals [like the polar bear].”
Despite this win, however, trophy hunters continue to flock to Canada from Japan and Europe and, as the price for polar bear hides keeps climbing, commercial demand for bears is stronger than ever. Even the protections secured in U.S. courts are not set in stone. Indeed, a Safari Club case challenging the very idea of protecting polar bears under the Endangered Species Act at all is on appeal right now and the Club may well appeal their loss this week.
That’s why we need new, more powerful, international regulation of both the commercial and trophy hunting trade. The United States can be a leader here, too, as can other polar bear “range states.”
It’s important to note that, in our view, this has nothing to do with the subsistence use of polar bears. NRDC supports the sustainable subsistence use of polar bears and other wildlife by native peoples. But selling polar bear tags to a big game hunter isn’t, we think, a subsistence use. And it certainly hasn’t proved itself sustainable.
NRDC will be traveling to Canada next week for a meeting of the 1973 Convention on Polar Bears, where we will be reaching out to the international community on this issue. We’ll keep you posted.