Position on the Joint Commission recommendations regarding polar bear harvest under the Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population

Background

In June, 2010, an agreement was reached in Anchorage (Alaska) between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population. In it, the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission recommended a new quota system for the polar bear subsistence harvest to be shared equally by indigenous peoples of Chukotka and Alaska.

In large part this decision is a reflection of the Commission’s recognition that the existing harvest situation (legal but without quota in the U.S. and illegal and uncontrolled in Russia) is untenable, currently at unsustainable levels when combined, and that allowing it to continue would be detrimental to this polar bear population. The recommended quota is 58 animals per year to be shared between Alaska and Chukotka, with the total number of females not to exceed 19. This number is to include all removals from this population, including defensive take (i.e. bears killed in the protection of human life or property).

When setting the quota, the Commission used the best available information and expert opinion from its scientific working group, which estimated that the total Alaska-Chukotka bear population is 2,000 animals. At the June meeting, the Commission requested the parties develop management programs in preparation for implementation of quotas. These programs were to include provisions beyond the harvest seasons. The Russian and American sections of the Commission were asked to develop by June 2011 the required regulatory framework to implement and manage the proposed harvest.

There are considerable differences with current management infrastructure and scientific information between Alaska and Chukotka.

Alaska

The Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act was implemented in the 1970’s. Following that, Alaska eliminated polar bear harvest by non-Native hunters. The recommended quota introduction from the US/RU Commission would be the first such limit for subsistence hunters harvesting bears from the Chukchi Sea polar bear population. This would represent a voluntary reduction from the current average harvest of 37 per year to a share of no more than 29. Moreover, Alaska’s Native subsistence hunters, represented by the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, and the USFWS, have a history of working together in monitoring harvests through a co-management agreement and an established tagging system to track hides and skulls. By introducing shared quotas, this system should result in the prevention or minimization of possible illegal harvest. It should also allow for timely proposals for quota revision depending on the status of the polar bear population and its habitat.

Chukotka

In Chukotka, all polar bear harvesting is banned under current Russian federal legislation. However, illegal hunting takes place. The exact level of poaching is unknown, with experts’ estimates varying significantly from 40 to 280 animals per year (based on estimates for the last 10-15 years). According to the new recommendations under the Agreement, the set quota includes all forms of animal harvesting. Current levels of poaching in Chukotka may already exceed the Russian part of the quota (29 animals). Clearly better and more current information is required to better assess this issue. WWF recognizes that Russian federal and Chukotka authorities lack efficient control over harvesting and trade of wildlife and its derivatives, and enforcement of wildlife regulations. Therefore, WWF is now working with the federal and Chukotka governments, scientists and local organizations to put in place practices and systems that could support a responsible harvest in the future.

Underlying WWF position:

WWF determines its positions on the harvest of wild flora and fauna based on the best available scientific data on the population status and on the likelihood of harvest sustainability to maintain viable populations.

WWF acknowledges the cultural importance of polar bears and polar bear harvesting for traditional use by the indigenous peoples of Chukotka and Alaska, which is also recognized in the bi-lateral Agreement.

WWF position on the agreement:

WWF commends the US and Russian governments, as well as the indigenous representatives of Alaska and Chukotka, for successfully reaching agreement on the important conservation goal to protect a shared population of wildlife, the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population. WWF views this agreement first and foremost as a conservation agreement which provides opportunities for Arctic communities to play an active role in managing and protecting the magnificent icon of the north, the polar bear.

WWF supports the Commission’s conclusions that the conservation benefits of this agreement will depend on the implementation of mechanisms for effective monitoring, enforcement and human-bear conflict reduction with the assistance of indigenous peoples. These mechanisms are yet to be developed. Illegal hunting and any commercial trade must also be investigated and eliminated if this agreement is to be successful.

WWF remains concerned about the level of polar bear illegal harvest in Chukotka and elsewhere in Russia. WWF and TRAFFIC are also concerned about recent increases in the demand for polar bear hides potentially fueling increased illegal harvest. We are committed to working with management agencies, communities and scientists to develop on-the-ground programs that will improve the success of this Agreement. WWF is also concerned about the lack of current or historical population monitoring given both the suggested harvest levels in the past two decades and the rapid loss of sea ice habitat occurring in the Chukchi Sea. At the same time, WWF recognizes that significant research is underway in the American portion of the Chukchi Sea, which will help to inform the Commission’s management decisions. WWF staff are also participating in this research and WWF will fund the participation of Russian and American field biologists in 2011.

In keeping with the principle of the sustainability of harvest and considering institutional differences in countries of the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population, WWF believes that:

  • It is possible to start implementing quotas in Alaska, and
  • It will be possible to implement quotas in Chukotka only upon the achievement of certain management “milestones.”

WWF believes that it will be possible to implement harvest quotas in Chukotka in accordance with the Agreement only when the following conditions are met, or mechanisms to manage the following are in place:

  • Current and credible assessment and monitoring of illegal polar bear harvest in Chukotka;
  • Effective control of polar bear poaching, including an investigation into the markets that drive demand and a program to eliminate these markets;
  • Implementation of an efficient and transparent system for tracking, reporting, and enforcement regarding polar bear harvest and derivatives trade;
  • Development and implementation of population status monitoring (both research and hunter sampling) that will inform future harvest recommendations.

WWF believes this agreement obliges both jurisdictions to fund multi-year collaborative research to obtain the data on population status, reproductive rate, and other parameters including trends of population health which are necessary to ensure the population remains viable.

WWF acknowledges the conservation benefits that would result from an active and effective management and enforcement program. WWF will work with the Russian and American governments, relevant agencies, NGOs, and local hunters to support the achievement of the “management milestones” stated above.

WWF Projects Supporting the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear population:

1. WWF supports and directly funds the Umky Patrol program in Chukotka. The Umky Patrol is a community based program to reduce human bear conflict, eliminate poaching, and educate the public on polar bear conservation and safety issues.

2. WWF and TRAFFIC funded an effort to assess the current status of illegal polar bear harvest in Russia- Chukotka specifically.

3. WWF is contributing personnel expertise and field capture time to the USFWS-led Chukchi research program in Alaska.

4. WWF is an active partner in the U.S./Russia polar bear Agreement process and facilitates the participation of key Chukotka partners and increased dialogue between the parties.

5. WWF is supporting a scientific exchange program for a Russian biologist to participate in the 2011 USFWS Chukchi Sea capture season and will continue to support research exchanges to build capacity in Chukotka.