Polar Bear Factsheet

Polar Bears in Canada: The current facts (January 2008)

As some recent media reports have mistakenly cited incorrect facts about Canadian and circumarctic polar bears, WWF-Canada provides a brief summary of the most important facts about Canadian polar bears. In this way we hope that readers will be able to base their thinking, writing and decisions on accurate facts, not distorted information. Much of this information is contained in the recently published 190-page report from the World Conservation Union's Polar Bear Specialist Group most recent Working Meeting (IUCN 2006 - pbsg.npolar.no).

Range and Numbers


There are currently 19 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, in Canada, Alaska (USA), Russia, Svalbard (Norway) and Greenland (Denmark). Thirteen of these populations occur either wholly or partially in Canada, ranging from the Ontario shores of Hudson Bay as far north as Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, and from northern Yukon in the west to Labrador in the east. Twelve of these populations occur at least partially in Nunavut.

Polar bears often travel huge distances in their annual cycle. Because population estimates are very expensive to obtain in the Arctic, census data is patchy for some polar bear populations. The current overall estimate is of 20-25,000 wild polar bears, with approximately 15,000 (about 2/3) occurring in Canada.

Trends in Canadian Polar Bear Populations

From IUCN 2006, Polar Bear Specialist Group Proceedings from 2005 meeting. Much of the data in the IUCN Proceedings was provided by the Government of Nunavut, which participated fully in the production of the status report.
 

Population No. (year of most recent estimate) Status (re. historic levels) Current Trend Estimated risk of decline in next 10 years
S Beaufort Sea (Canada/USA) 1500 (2006) Reduced Declining No estimate
N Beaufort Sea 1200 (1986) Not reduced Stable No estimate
Viscount Melville 215 (1996) Severely reduced Increasing Very low
Lancaster Sound 2541 (1998) Not reduced Stable Higher
McClintock Channel 284 (2000) Severely reduced Increased Very low
Gulf of Boothia 1523 (2000) Not reduced Stable Lower
Foxe Basin 2300 (2004) Not reduced Stable Lower
W Hudson Bay 935 (2004) Reduced Declining Very High
S Hudson Bay 1000 (1988) Not reduced Stable Lower*
Davis Strait
(Canada/Greenland)
1650 (2004) Data deficient Data deficient Lower
Baffin Bay
(Canada/Greenland)
1546 (2004) Reduced Declining Very High
Norwegian Bay 190 (1998) Not reduced Declining Higher
Kane Basin
(Canada/Greenland)
164 (1998) Reduced Declining Very High


* Very recent Ontario Government research shows that polar bears in this population are now experiencing significant declines in body condition since the mid-1980s, which, when combined with satellite data on sea ice reductions, suggests that population declines may follow (Obbard et al. 2006).

Obbard, M.E. 2006. Temporal trends in the Body Condition of Southern Hudson Bay Polar Bears. Climate Change Research Information Note Number 3. Government of Ontario, Applied Research and Development Branch. Pp. 8. (sit.mnr.gov.on.ca)
 

To summarize the above table:

A. Of the 13 Canadian polar bear populations, the current trends for the 11 populations not known to be severely reduced from historic levels are:

Stable = 5
Declining = 5
Data deficient = 1

B. The estimated risks of polar bear population declines in the next 10 years are:

Very high/higher = 5
Lower/very low = 6 (but see Southern Hudson Bay population note above)
No estimate = 2

Threats

The main threats to the continued survival of polar bear populations are:

  • Loss of sea ice habitat through climate change.
  • Increased industrial activities, primarily oil and gas exploration and development.
  • Unsustainable harvest for some populations (both legal and illegal). WWF supports traditional sustainable harvest by Indigenous peoples.
  • Loss of primary prey due to sea ice reduction: impacts to availability and abundance.


Other, currently less significant factors include:
 

  • Intraspecific predation (i.e., cannibalism, often seen in bear species);
  • Increased conflicts with humans along Arctic coastlines (human safety issues, often requiring removal of polar bears);
  • Scientific research; and
  • Tourism.

WWF Solutions

  • Work with governments, industry, and individuals to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate climate change.
  • Promote sustainable consumptive and non-consumptive use of polar bears that directly affect the species, such as hunting, poaching, industrial take, illegal trade, and unsustainable tourism.
  • Protect critical habitat including important movement corridors, and denning habitat.
  • Prevent or remove direct threats from industrial activity such as oil and gas development, and arctic shipping.

WWF Actions

  • Work with stakeholders to protect critical polar bear habitat throughout the Arctic.
  • Support for and communication of key science that will help us build resilience.
  • Engagement with indigenous/local communities and governments to reduce human-wildlife conflicts and work towards sustainable development opportunities.
  • Drafting and spearheading management solutions that address the major threats of climate change and industrialization of the Arctic.


The 'Listing' Situation for North American Polar Bears


Various jurisdictions and organisations assess the status and conservation prospects for polar bears, as for other wildlife species, against quantitative criteria, based on acknowledged, peer-reviewed information available to them. Here is a summary of the current 'listings' based on such assessments for polar bears:


1. World Conservation Union (IUCN) 'Red List' of Threatened Species


In 2006, based on the work of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN (all Canadian jurisdictions are represented at each PBSG meeting), the polar bear (as a species across its entire range) was up-listed from 'Lower Risk' to 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List. This was due primarily to the acknowledged escalating threat posed by global warming and melting of sea ice.

2. U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA)

On Dec 27th, 2006, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that the polar bear (worldwide) be listed as 'Threatened' under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), due primarily to the concerns for the species' survival as sea ice continues to melt/disappear. Substantial scientific evidence on polar bear populations and on current and projected sea ice changes has been compiled and released in fall 2007 by the US federal government's Fish and Wildlife Service. A final listing decision is now expected in February 2008.

If the 'Threatened' status is confirmed under the ESA, then importation of polar bear skins and parts from sport hunts to the U.S. (including from Canadian populations) will be totally prohibited under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. Currently it is allowed from some populations via permits.

3. Canada's Species At Risk Act (SARA)

Under Canada's federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is currently preparing a new status report on polar bears in Canada. Their plan is to assess this against the listing criteria at a meeting in April 2008, and to recommend to the Minister of the Environment a suitable listing based on the new evidence on status, trends and threats and associated projections for later this century. The last COSEWIC status review was in 2002, and they assessed the polar bear as a species of 'Special Concern'.
 

Addition Reading

WWF-Canada's position statement on polar bears


WWF-Canada's submission to hearing on the Baffin Bay polar bear population

Adopt a Polar Bear

 / ©: WWF-Canada
Give the gift of a symbolic adoption. Help protect polar bears!

Polar Bear Tracker

Polar bear Mother and young Churchill, Canada / ©: François PIERREL / WWF-Canon
Follow radio-collared bears as they explore their sea-ice habitat in the Hudson Bay.