Why is the US pushing to ban polar bear trade? Polar bears have been saved

One of the items on the agenda at the upcoming 16th meeting of the signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok Thailand (3-14 March, 2013) is a proposal to upgrade the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I status - prepared by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The suggested change is based on what is claimed to be “a marked decline in the population size in the wild, which has been inferred or projected on the basis of a decrease in area of habitat and a decrease in quality of habitat.” If this proposition is adopted by CITES, it would be illegal to trade legally harvested polar bear parts of any kind.

The US tried this maneuver at the last CITES meeting in 2010 and it failed rather miserably. I see little reason to believe it will pass this year, even though the US is actively campaigning and has motivated activists worldwide to pressure other countries to vote in their favour (see “Activists push for international ban on legal trade in polar bear items” which discusses the absurdity of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) not supporting the CITES proposal because they want to keep the focus on model-predicted future “threats” of global warming, see Clark et al. 2012, abstract below).

But here’s the question I have for all the folks involved in this CITES petition and other similar proposals to upgrade the conservation status of the polar bear to a “threatened” or “endangered” level: why is all this time, money and effort going toward ever-more restrictive regulations for a species that has clearly been saved but about which we still know so little?

Some CITES background

In order to be accepted by CITES, a proposal to up-list a species from Appendix II to I requires a 2/3 majority of the relevant Committee. At the 2010 CITES meeting, 48 countries voted to move the polar bear to Appendix I, 62 voted against and 11 abstained. Iceland, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, and the EU were among the “against” voters (see reports here and here; note that the EU votes as a block, representing 27 votes, regardless of whether individual EU countries support a proposal or not – see this US Fish & Wildlife Press Release, which is almost certainly why the US Fish & Wildlife Service is actively promoting acceptance of their proposal to the EU).

In other words, the 2010 US proposal did not get anywhere near the 2/3 majority of votes needed to pass – in fact, it did not get even 50%.

This time around, the US has the support of Russia, which it did not have in 2010, but unless it can get the EU block vote, it seems unlikely the proposal will get enough to pass – especially since the remaining three Arctic nations have already made it clear they do not support the proposed change.

[keep in mind here that the US has management jurisdiction over the smallest percentage of polar bears worldwide - by current counts (giving the Chukchi a zero, as no numbers have been reported), only 2.4% of polar bears (out of the upper estimate of 25,000), live in US territory (they share the Southern Beaufort Sea population with Canada). The percentage will be higher once there is a count for the Chukchi Sea - which they share with Russia - but the US still has the fewest polar bears of all Arctic nations]

Page 14 of the US proposal (also available on the CITES website) includes a summary of the reactions of other Arctic nations to the proposed US submission:

Canada:Canadian officials remain convinced that polar bears do not merit inclusion in CITES Appendix I.
Denmark (Greenland):Based on the information provided, as well as the results of these ongoing management and monitoring programs, Greenland did not see any need to transfer polar bears from Appendix II to I.
Norway:In Norway, the polar bear is fully protected and is the subject of ongoing research and management. Illegal harvest and trade are not a problem, and polar bear populations have increased since the 1973 Agreement. In conclusion, Norwegian officials suggested that the species was adequately protected under CITES and that no further action was indicated.
Russian Federation:…indicated that they would support a proposal by the United States to transfer the polar bear to Appendix I at CoP16.

On top of Norway’s compelling argument, as Environment Canada points out (see Footnote below), polar bear parts for trade from Canada do not come from a commercial harvest like the one that devastated polar bear numbers in the past but from a regulated subsistence harvest (see previous post here). There is no credible evidence that Canada’s regulated subsistence harvest is having a detrimental effect on polar bear populations.

Time to move on

Why is it so hard for environmental advocates and advocate scientists to accept that the unbridled slaughter that went on in the past has been successfully halted? Why can’t they move on? The 1973 agreement that gave protection to polar bears worldwide is one of the great conservation success stories – polar bear numbers have rebounded remarkably since then (see also previous posts here, here, and here). The polar bear has been saved.

There is no question in my mind that we should be moving on to understanding polar bears better, including how and where they live. At a time when polar bear biologists cannot tell us with any confidence how many polar bears exist in Russia, East Greenland and the Arctic Basin – which truly hinders management decisions – why are advocate scientists not petitioning the WWF (as well as the Sierra Club, the Humane Society International, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Polar Bears International, among others) to put some serious money towards counting polar bears? As I mentioned before, for every dollar of the millions the WWF brings in, it funnels pennies toward essential polar bear research.

Advocate scientists would do more for polar bears of the future if they stopped their infernal cries of “Save the polar bear” and get on with the next conservation step – increasing our knowledge of this species. Where is the global campaign led by Stirling, Derocher and Amstrup for money to survey all Russian territories and East Greenland for polar bears? Why is all this advocacy effort being poured into more and more stringent regulation schemes and fighting the crystal-ball perils of global warming that may or may not be an issue 50 years from now when there are basic biological questions that still need to be answered – information critical to managing polar bear populations 10 years from now?

Next time a representative of WWF or the Humane Society (or their ilk) calls you for a donation or to sign a petition – or an advocate biologist makes yet another plea to further “protect” polar bears – I suggest you ask them.

This is what Environment Canada says about CITES and the polar bear:

Polar bears and CITES [pdf "Conservation of Polar Bears in Canada 2012"].

Appendix I listings are appropriate for species that are known to be traded internationally and when the trade has, or may have, a detrimental impact on the status of the species. At the current time, the polar bear does not meet the criteria for listing in CITES Appendix I. Approximately 2% of the Canadian polar bear population enters international trade (300 bears annually), and exports from Canada have not increased over the years. Polar bear trade does not come from a commercial harvest but from a subsistence harvest. Harvest quotas are based on principles of conservation and Aboriginal subsistence, and are not market driven; an Appendix I listing would have no conservation benefit.

Polar bear also do not meet the biological criteria to be listed in Appendix I. To be listed, a species must be “threatened with extinction,” which is defined as a species that meets at least one of: a small wild population; the wild population has a restricted area of distribution; and/or, a marked decline that is either observed or projected. The current global population size is estimated at 20 000–25 000 polar bears. The polar bear does not have a small wild population, it does not have a restricted area of distribution and no marked decline has been observed.

International trade is not a threat to polar bears, and the species does not meet the biological criteria for an Appendix I listing at the current time.

Clark, D.A., Meek, C., Cheechoo, J., Clark, S., Foote, A.L., Lee, D., and York, G. 2013. Polar bears and CITES: A rejoinder to Parsons and Cornick. Marine Policy 38:365-368. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X12001534

Clark et al. 2013 Abstract

In 2010 a US proposal to uplist polar bears to Appendix I of CITES was rejected. Parsons and Cornick (2011, [1]) critiqued this decision and the IUCN/TRAFFIC analysis that supported it. Their critique overlooks several important dimensions of polar bear conservation. Foremost, they failed to explore what subsistence hunting actually means in this context. Paradoxically, prohibiting international trade through CITES might actually increase the number of bears killed by northern Aboriginal peoples. Second, they misread the scope of the IUCN/TRAFFIC recommendation. Third, uplisting polar bears under CITES would allow national governments to claim they are saving polar bears through a decision that only addresses peripheral threats and diverts attention from insufficient action to mitigate climate change: the factor that Parsons and Cornick rightly point out as the primary threat to polar bears.

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