History of Tribes and Polar Bear Management in Alaska

Time Immemorial-Present: Alaska Native peoples maintain tribal sovereignty and cultural connections with polar bears, sustainably managing subsistence harvests through indigenous knowledge.


Pope Alexander VI issues a papal bull providing spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. This establishes the Doctrine of Discovery, the foundation for European explorers’ claim to domination over indigenous lands, people, and resources.


Colonization of Alaska begins with Russian exploration, ushering in subsequent eras of heavy impacts to indigenous peoples and wildlife throughout Alaska. Colonialist expansion into the Alaskan arctic throughout the following centuries introduces exploitative use of wildlife, impacting polar bears and other wildlife populations, as well as indigenous people. This colonization involved the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples, including the attempted eradication of indigenous languages and cultural practices surrounding relationships with animals.


As the United States expands west and further colonization of indigenous lands and people occurs, U.S. case law and treaties begin to establish precedents for relationships between the federal government and tribes. The U.S. takes on the role of the colonizing power, initially held by Great Britain and other European nations, along with the responsibilities entailing domination over indigenous peoples and their land. Tribes are initially treated by the U.S. as foreign entities but are finally determined to be “domestic dependent nations” with government-to-government relationships with the U.S. The trust responsibility of the federal government toward tribes is established, including responsibilities to protect tribal sovereignty and rights of self-governance, as well as subsistence rights.


Commercial whaling arrives in the Alaskan arctic, introducing a simultaneous commerical market for polar bear skins. Heavy commercial exploitation of marine mammals during this period causes food shortages and hardship for Alaska’s indigenous peoples.


Purchase of Alaska from Russia – Alaska is occupied militarily until 1884. The federal government claims authority over indigenous peoples, lands and wildlife in Alaska without the consent of the indigenous peoples. Through U.S. colonization of Alaska, the Trust responsibility of the U.S. government extends to tribes in Alaska.


The federal government claims authority over indigenous peoples, lands and wildlife in Alaska without the consent of the indigenous peoples. Through U.S. colonization of Alaska, the Trust responsibility of the U.S. government extends to tribes in Alaska.


Alaska Game Law passed by Congress, initiating first federal regulations on wildlife harvests in Alaska, with the exception of previous regulations on fur seals and sea otters. Polar bears and other animals categorized as fur bearers excluded from regulations. Subsistence harvest of wild game by Alaska Natives expressly protected in Alaska Game Law.


Second Organic Act – Alaska becomes a territory of the U.S., and a territorial legislature is established. Wildlife management in Alaska continues to fall under the responsibility of federal government agencies, despite a territorial government being in place.


Native Citizenship Act passed by Alaska Territorial Legislature, requiring Alaska Native applicants for U.S. citizenship to sever all tribal relationships and customs, and to obtain certification of having adopted “the habits of a civilized life” from at least 5 white U.S. citizens.


Indian Citizenship Act passed by Congress granting U.S. citizenship to all American Indian and Alaska Native people not already citizens. Relinquishment of tribal citizenship and associations not required.


Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) extends to Alaska. Many tribes in Alaska begin to adopt constitutions, organizing governance systems in a style more recognizable to Western society to more effectively interact with colonizing powers.

1940s – 1972

Aircraft-based sport hunting of polar bears by non-Natives in Alaska occurs, becoming heavy in the 1960s. Polar bear take by sport hunters greatly out number subsistence takes by Alaska Natives. During this time period conservation groups and scientists begin to raise

concerns about polar bear populations, generating interest in more polar bear research and regulations throughout the arctic. From this point forward, advocacy against polar bear hunting continually impacts Alaska Native subsistence, despite the sustainability of the harvest and the integral relationship between Alaska Native people and polar bears since time immemorial.


First federal regulations issued related to polar bear harvests, introducing a bag limit for sport hunting of 2 bears per year.


Alaska Statehood – State of Alaska assumes management authority over wildlife, including polar bears


Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) institutes polar bear management program, involving a limited research program based mainly on harvest reporting. Sport hunting of polar bears continues, with annual bag limits of 1 per year. Residents allowed to harvest polar bears at any time without limit for food. Sealing of hides required to help inform research on harvest levels and composition, and gather observations on population from hunters and guides.


First International Scientific Meeting on the Polar Bear held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, organized at the request of the U.S. Secretary of State. Proceedings from this meeting lay the groundwork for future domestic U.S. polar bear research and management regimes, as well as further international conservation collaborations. Participation includes delegations from five arctic nations, researchers, conservation groups, and trophy hunting organizations. Indigenous people are not included.


International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) establishes Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) consisting of scientists from each of the five countries in which polar bears occur. Indigenous people and knowledge are not included.


Congress passes the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), prohibiting all take of marine mammals in the U.S., including polar bears. Exemption in the MMPA allows for the continued sustainable subsistence harvest of marine mammals by Alaska Natives. Management authority for polar bears is transferred back to the federal government. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is designated as the federal agency responsible for polar bear research and management.


North Slope Borough (NSB) established. From this point forward, NSB Department of Wildlife Management plays important roles in polar bear management and research, as well as representation of indigenous voices.


Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears signed by the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia.


CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) established. Polar bears listed as an Appendix II species in 1975, creating regulations on international trade in polar bear parts and products, including Alaska Native handicrafts.

Late 1970s

Alaska Native marine mammal organizations begin forming to represent and advocate for Alaska Native subsistence users in marine mammal management processes.


Polar bear research in Alaska identifies Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea bears as separate stocks, with the Chukchi Sea stock being shared with Russia and Southern Beaufort Sea stock shared with Canada.


MMPA amended to require monitoring of Alaska Native marine mammal subsistence harvests.


U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) begins conducting polar bear research in Alaska, primarily on Southern Beaufort Sea bears. USGS research informs polar bear management by USFWS


First abundance estimate of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear stock produced, estimating the subpopulation at 1,778 bears.


Inuvialuit-Iñupiat (I-I) Polar Bear Management Agreement for Southern Beaufort Sea Polar Bears signed between Inuvialuit of Canada and Iñupiat of the North Slope, providing structure for self-management of harvest by indigenous peoples, and establishing I-I Polar Bear Commission. Iñupiat participation organized through the North Slope Borough.


USFWS issues regulations implementing the Marking, Tagging, and Reporting program, requiring tagging of hides and skulls of polar bears harvested by Alaska Natives, with penalties for failure to comply.


U.S. and Russian government officials and researchers begin holding discussions on development of an international agreement for management of the shared Chukchi Sea polar bear population. Indigenous people not initially included in these discussions, but later self-organize to become involved.


Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation estimate updated to 1,480 bears


Department of Interior clarifies that it formally recognizes Alaska tribes.


First abundance estimate of Chukchi Sea polar bear stock produced, estimating the subpopulation at approximately 2,000 – 5,000 bears.


Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) formed to represent all Alaska Natives in polar bear co-management, recognizing the need for Alaska Native voices to be represented in management processes with the federal government. ANC begins discussions with indigenous people in Chukotka to ensure indigenous involvement in bilateral processes related to Chukchi Sea polar bears.


MMPA amended to add Section 119, allowing for federal agencies to enter into Cooperative Agreements with Alaska Native organizations for the co-management of marine mammal species.


ANC enters into its first Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).


Chukchi Sea subpopulation estimate revised to 2,000 bears by IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.


U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement signed, including provisions allowing for the continued sustainable subsistence harvest of polar bears by indigenous peoples and formalizing the involvement of indigenous peoples in the management of Chukchi Sea polar bears. Terms of the agreement involve implementation of a quota for take of Chukchi Sea polar bears, as well as collaborative research between U.S. and Russia to inform management decisions.


Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation estimate updated to 2,272 bears.


Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation estimate updated to 1,526 bears


MMPA amended to add Title V, implementing the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement domestically. Title V of the MMPA includes provisions allowing for the federal government to delegate management and enforcement authority for subsistence harvests of Chukchi Sea polar bears to the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, or its successor entity.


After years of petitions and a lawsuit initiated by conservation groups, polar bears are listed by USFWS as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to potential future impacts from loss of sea ice habitat as a result of climate change.


Chukchi Sea subpopulation estimate declared as unknown by IUCN polar bear Specialist Group due to lack of current data.


Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation estimate updated to 900 bears. Indigenous voices, including the Inuvialuit-Inupiat Polar Bear Commission, express concern over this estimate due to its inconsistency with hunter observations of polar bear abundance, and advocate for additional population research to provide a more comprehensive estimate. 


ANC and USFWS begin developing draft harvest management plan for Chukchi Sea polar bears to implement U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement.


While Chukchi Sea subpopulation estimate still considered to be unknown, U.S.-based research indicates positive population growth.


USFWS finalizes Conservation Management Plan (CMP) for polar bears, as required by law due to listing of polar bears as threatened under ESA. While indigenous representatives participate in the development of the CMP, indigenous participation is at the level of a stakeholder group alongside other interests such as conservation groups and industry representatives, instead of at the level of a co-management partner with the USFWS.


Summit held in Nome, AK to discuss the future of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) due to concerns over communication and potentially inappropriate use of federal funding. Communication issues include a lack of widespread awareness among Alaska Native communities about the terms of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement and the impending implementation of a subsistence harvest quota. The Alaska Native community expresses a desire for the ANC to continue to represent Alaska Natives in polar bear co-management, seeking solutions to correct issues related to funding and communication. Following the summit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issues a statement that it will no longer enter into cooperative agreements with the ANC, or recognize ANC as a co-management partner. ANC subsequently dissolves. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issues a federal register notice in late 2016 calling for a new Alaska Native organization to partner with in polar bear co-management.


Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM) organizes statewide meetings to begin forming a new organization to represent Alaska Natives in polar bear co-management.


Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council (ANCC) formed by the passage of tribal resolutions ratifying ANCC Constitution, and delegating tribal authority to ANCC for polar bear co-management.


ANCC begins negotiating a draft co-management agreement with the USFWS, with the goal of delineating powers and authorities of the federal government and tribes in relation to polar bear management in the U.S., and establishing roles and responsibilities of each co-management partner.


Ten-year study of Chukchi Sea subpopulation estimates abundance at 2,937 bears, indicating healthy subpopulation.