Alaska Native communities that rely on polar bear subsistence have maintained sustainable harvests for millenia through the application of indigenous laws, spiritual beliefs, and cultural practices. This form of management is unwritten and sustained by the passing down of knowledge and values by experienced hunters, processors, seamstresses, artists, and dance leaders to the young and the learning in the practice of carrying on subsistence traditions. It is also sustained through oral traditions carefully maintained by knowledgeable people and elders in Alaska Native communities generation after generation. The management practices of Alaska Native polar bear subsistence communities are based on many generations of Indigenous Knowledge and co-existence with polar bears. Individual tribes and cultural groups have unique and varying practices and beliefs, however some standards are consistent throughout all communities, including the importance of not harvesting more than is needed and maintaining respect for animals and the environment. While federal laws and international treaties now govern many aspects of Alaska Native subsistence and polar bear management, indigenous management continues to be the foundation upon which Alaska Native subsistence users maintain relationships with polar bears.
Several overarching federal laws apply to polar bears in the U.S., shaping polar bear management and research, as well as regulations on subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives. These laws also impact how the U.S. government engages with the Alaska Native community on polar bear co-management.
Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)
The MMPA is the primary law governing polar bear management in the U.S. Under the MMPA, the Secretary of the Interior is responsible for polar bear management in the U.S., a responsibility that is carried out by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service within the Department of Interior. As part of its management responsibilities for polar bears, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducts and collaborates on polar bear research, produces regular reports on the status of polar bears, and carries out other regulatory roles required by the MMPA.
The MMPA establishes a moratorium on all taking of marine mammals in the U.S., including polar bears. However, Section 101(b) of the MMPA provides an exemption to the moratorium for Alaska Natives. Section 101(b) conditions that take of marine mammals by Alaska Natives must be:
- For subsistence purposes or for the purpose of creating and selling authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing; and
- Not accomplished in a wasteful manner.
Regulations issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pursuant to the MMPA define who is considered an Alaska Native for the purposes of the Native exemption, what is considered an authentic native article of handicraft or clothing, and what is considered to be wasteful.
Section 101(b) also states that if the status of a species or stock of marine mammal is considered to be depleted, the Secretary may issue regulations restricting the subsistence harvest of such marine mammals by Alaska Natives, after establishing through a public process with substantial evidence that such regulation is needed.
Section 119 of the MMPA authorizes the Secretary to enter into cooperative agreements with Alaska Native organizations to conserve marine mammals and provide for co-management of marine mammal subsistence. Section 119 allows for the agency to issue grants to Alaska Native organizations for population data collection and analysis, harvest monitoring, research, and the development of co-management structures, among other purposes.
Marking, Tagging and Reporting
Section 109(i) of the MMPA authorizes the Secretary to issue regulations requiring the marking, tagging and reporting of marine mammals harvested by Alaska Natives.
Title V: Chukchi Sea Polar Bears
Title V of the MMPA specifically addresses the management of the Chukchi Sea stock of polar bears in the U.S. Following the ratification of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement in 2000, Title V was added to the MMPA in 2007 to implement the Agreement in the U.S. This section of the law allows for the continued subsistence harvest of Chukchi Sea polar bears by Alaska Natives, however the U.S.-Russia Agreement through Title V introduces limitations on subsistence harvests from this population, including an annual take limit and a 2:1 male-female harvest ratio. Title V allows for the federal government to delegate authority to ANCC for the management of the subsistence harvest, and to undertake enforcement actions pursuant to such management authority. Title V also requires Alaska Native participation in the decision-making processes established under the U.S.-Russia Agreement, including veto power at the level of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission.
Endangered Species Act (ESA)
In 2008, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed polar bears as a threatened species under the ESA due to potential future impacts from sea ice loss caused by climate change.
Depletion Status and Harvest Regulations
ESA listing automatically categorizes polar bears as “depleted” under the MMPA, which creates an opportunity for regulation of subsistence harvests by the federal government under to Section 101(b) of the MMPA. At this point in time such regulation is not being proposed by the federal government, as subsistence harvest levels are not currently considered to be a threat to polar bear populations in the U.S. Instead, conservation efforts are focused on the primary threat to polar bears, which is sea ice loss due to climate change.
Conservation Management Plan
Both the ESA and MMPA require that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service develop a written plan for the improvement of polar bears due to its listing under the ESA. As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published a Conservation Management Plan for polar bears in 2016, identifying the most important action as reducing global greenhouse gas emisssions. The plan also identifies such actions as management of human-bear conflict, protection of denning habitat, collaborative management of subsistence harvest, minimizing risk of oil and chemical spills, and conducting monitoring and research.
Upon listing of polar bears under the ESA, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was required to designate critical habitat for polar bears in the U.S. Critical habitat status requires that activities authorized, funded, or carried out by the federal government in such areas will not jeopardize the continued existence of the species, or destroy or adversely impact its critical habitat. Critical habitat was designated in 2010 through a formal rulemaking process, and includes barrier island and sea ice habitat throughout northern and western Alaska waters and coastal areas, as well as land-based denning habitat on the eastern side of Alaska’s north slope.
Southern Beaufort Sea Polar Bear Management
Inuvialuit-Iñupiat (I-I) Polar Bear Agreement
In 1988 Inuvialuit from Canada and Iñupiat from the North Slope of Alaska signed a user-to-user management agreement for the Southern Beaufort Sea stock of polar bears, which ranges across the U.S.-Canada border.
This agreement set voluntary management and conservation measures to be carried out by indigenous hunters in communities throughout the range of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. In the U.S. this agreement applies to polar bear harvests from Icy Cape in the west to the U.S.-Canadian border in the east, including the communities of Wainwright, Utqiagvik, Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik. On the U.S. side, development and adoption of the agreement was coordinated through the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. The agreement includes provisions such as the establishment of an annual subsistence harvest quota, protection of family groups and bears in dens, protection of bears at whaling bone piles, and other conservation measures.
I-I Joint Commission
The agreement established a Joint Commission to implement the terms of the agreement, including two representatives designated by the Inuvialuit Game Council and two representatives designated by the North Slope Borough Fish and Game Management Committee. The Joint Commission meets annually, rotating between meeting locations in Alaska and Canada. In these meetings the Commission determines an annual voluntary harvest quota, and makes other management, conservation, and research recommendations to be carried out in the interim period between meetings.
Technical Advisory Committee
The agreement established a Technical Advisory Committee responsible for conducting research and making recommendations to the Commission. For the U.S., members of the Technical Advisory Committee include researchers, managers, and Indigenous Knowledge holders from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, North Slope Borough, and Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council.
Voluntary Harvest Quota
The current annual subsistence harvest quota adopted by the Commission is 56 bears: 35 for the U.S. and 21 for Canada. The I-I Agreement also provides increased protection for female bears by encouraging that the subsistence harvest of females not exceed one third of the annual quota. Since the adoption of the agreement, harvest levels have consistently been within the voluntary quota.
Chukchi Sea Polar Bear Management
U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement
In 2000, the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement was signed, and the MMPA was updated in 2007 to implement the agreement in the U.S.
This agreement establishes a bilateral management structure for Chukchi Sea polar bears, which range across the Chukchi and Bering Seas, between the U.S. and Russia. While the original language of the agreement delineates the eastern treaty boundary in Alaska as Point Barrow, bilateral efforts are currently underway to change the eastern boundary to Icy Cape. This boundary change is supported by the latest polar bear research, and will allow for the treaty to match the subpopulation boundary recognized by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and utilized by the I-I Commission for the management of Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. Once the boundary change is finalized, the ANCC communities included in the treaty area will be: Point Lay, Point Hope, Kivalina, Kotzebue, Shishmaref, Wales, Little Diomede, Brevig Mission, King Island/Nome, Gambell, Savoonga. The purpose of this treaty is to promote cooperative management and research by the U.S. and Russia, with mechanisms built in for indigenous participation in the management process. In addition to other conservation measures the treaty establishes a bilateral commission charged with adopting annual take limits for Chukchi Sea polar bears.
U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission
The U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission consists of two members from each country, one of whom is a government representative and one of whom must be a representative of the indigenous people. In the U.S., the Commissioners are appointed by the President of the United States to serve 4-year terms. In the decision-making process of the Commission, each country is allowed one vote, requiring consensus between the Commissioners of each country. The Commission is required to meet on an annual basis to discuss implementation of the treaty, make management decisions, and adopt an annual take limit for Chukchi Sea polar bears. Meetings alternate between the U.S. and Russia, and in years where in-person meetings are not possible they have been held by teleconference.
Scientific Working Group (SWG)
The agreement requires the establishment of a Scientific Working Group (SWG) to coordinate research efforts and provide information to the Commission on population estimates, sustainable harvest levels, critical habitat, and other management considerations. SWG membership includes seven researchers and Indigenous Knowledge holders from each country, with U.S. and Russian co-chairs. Work of the SWG occurs on an ongoing basis between Commission meetings, and formal meetings of the SWG generally occur alongside Commission meetings. During such meetings, the SWG produces reports with recommendations for the Commission to help inform their decisions.
Annual Take Limit
The treaty requires that the Commission adopt an annual take limit based on the sustainable harvest level, with each country having the right to harvest half of the annual take limit. The take limit includes all human-caused removals of polar bears from the Chukchi Sea subpopulation. The first take limit adopted by the Commission in 2010 was 58 bears, with 29 takes available for each country, to which a 2:1 male-female ratio applies. In 2012 the Commission adopted a 5-year quota system, allowing for variation in take level between years, provided that the overall five-year quota (58 x 5) and male-female harvest ratio are not exceeded. After new research produced in coordination with the SWG provided an updated population estimate and sustainable harvest level, the Commission increased the annual take limit to 85 (42.5 per country) in 2018. Although no formal harvest management system has been adopted in the U.S. to implement the take limit, subsistence harvests have been well within both the take limit and the male-female ratio.
From the perspective of the indigenous community, one of the motivating factors for the treaty was to allow for the legal, sustainable subsistence harvest of polar bears by Native people in Chukotka. The subsistence harvest of polar bears has been illegal in Russia since the 1950s, creating situations of hardship and cultural distress for Chukotkan Natives, many of whom maintain familial and cultural ties with indigenous peoples in Alaska. Although the agreement has been in place since 2000, subsistence harvest of polar bears in Chukotka remains illegal. However, a draft harvest management plan for Chukotka has been developed, and is being considered for approval by the Russian government. On the Alaska side, subsistence harvests have continued to occur as normal, and have been well within the bounds of the take limits adopted by the Commission. After 2010, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission (ANC) began drafting a Harvest Management Plan with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to implement a quota, however before the plan was adopted the ANC was disbanded. Throughout the process that led to the ANC’s disbanding, it became apparent that there was a lack of awareness among Alaska Native communities about the treaty and proposed quota-based management system, which was cause for great concern. Since then, the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council formed and has begun to conduct outreach and communication among its member communities to guide its engagement in the U.S.-Russia bilateral process moving forward. While formal implementation of the take limit has not occurred, other aspects of the treaty have been implemented, including regular meetings of both the Commission and SWG, and associated research coordination and information sharing.
International Conservation Agreements
1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (Range States Agreement)
International meetings on polar bear research and conservation starting in 1965 led to the formation of the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1968. During this time, international concern for polar bear welfare was heightened due to impacts from heavy sport hunting and lack of research. The IUCN facilitated the development of an international agreement on polar bear conservation, which the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics signed in 1973, entering into force in 1976. This agreement enables coordinated management of polar bears throughout their range in the circumpolar arctic. The agreement prohibits the taking of polar bears, with exceptions for subsistence harvest by indigenous peoples, research, and defense of life and property. The agreement also requires that signatory countries, also called the “Range States,” enact legislation to comply with the terms of the agreement, and conduct national polar bear research programs, collaborating with other Range States when possible. The U.S. complied with the terms of this agreement through enactment of the MMPA.
Since the adoption of the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, the parties to the agreement meet biennially to provide updates on research and implementation of the agreement, and coordinate international management efforts. Meeting locations and Range States chairmanship rotates among the member countries. The IUCN PBSG serves as the scientific advisory body to the Range States.
In 2015 the Range States adopted a CAP, a 10-year plan for coordinated conservation and management efforts. Implementation of the CAP is organized into 2-year implementation plans, the progress from which is reported on at biennial Range States meetings. Domestic polar bear management efforts by the U.S. government are shaped by the objectives of the CAP, which include:
- Minimizing threats to polar bears and their habitat
- Communicating the importance of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to polar bear conservation
- Preservation and protection of essential polar bear habitat
- Ensuring responsible harvest management
- Effective management of human-bear interactions
- Ensuring that legal international trade of polar bear parts is done according to conservation principles, and that poaching and illegal trade are curtailed
CITES: Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
CITES is an international treaty which the U.S. is party to, with the goal of preventing species from becoming endangered or extinct due to international trade. The development of CITES began in 1963 through a resolution adopted at the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), resulting in treaty language agreed upon by 80 countries in Washington DC in 1973. CITES entered into force in 1975 and today includes 182 countries and the European Union. Each country that is party to CITES must designate a management authority which ensures that CITES-listed species are traded legally through the use of permits, and a scientific authority that determines whether trade in an animal or species could be detrimental to its survival in the wild. CITES applies to trade in live animals, as well as parts and products made from animals. A Conference of the Parties occurs every 2-3 years, during which species are considered for listing or uplisting.
CITES categorizes listed species in one of three appendices, each with different levels of regulation and permit requirements. Appendix I applies to species threatened with extinction, and includes the highest level of protection, such as restrictions on commercial trade. Appendix II applies to species not currently threatened with extinction, but which may become so without trade controls. International trade in Appendix II species can occur, but must include appropriate permits. Appendix III includes species which one country has asked other countries to help control international trade in.
CITES and Polar Bears
Since 1975 polar bears have been listed as an Appendix II species under CITES. In the U.S., CITES permitting for polar bear parts and products is handled through the U.S. Fish & Widlife Service. In order to travel outside of the U.S. with handicrafts or items that contain polar bear parts or fur, a CITES Export Permit may be required, as some countries do not allow the import of polar bear parts or products without CITES documents. Travelers should contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service import/export office in Anchorage, AK at (907)-271-6198 to determine whether they require a CITES Export Permit, and obtain one if needed. In addition to CITES, the MMPA regulates the export of polar bear parts and products. The MMPA allows for personal items or handicrafts to be exported, but prohibits the commercial export of handicrafts that contain polar bear parts or fur.