January 9, 2017

Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan highlights the obstacles polar bears face on the road to recovery, and how we can fix them.

On January 9, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released its plan for how to recover polar bears. The USFWS’s Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan outlines the challenges we need to address to conserve polar bears – from reducing human-bear conflicts to protecting dens of female bears and their cubs.

The plan offers goals to counter these and other hurdles polar bears face, including one action we can all partake in that is the key to saving polar bears: stopping sea ice loss from climate change.

Poster Child Polar Bear

When you think of climate change, what are the images that come to mind? Among the snapshots of monster coastal storms and raging forest fires, the key visual of climate change is an iceless Arctic Ocean, the polar bear’s home melting away. This picture is more than a dire image…it illustrates the vital connection polar bears have to their marine environment – stable sea ice.

During the late spring and summer months when the ocean freezes over, polar bears use sea ice to travel, hunt their primary prey – ringed and bearded seals – and rear their young. During the late summer and early fall when the sea ice melts away, polar bears are unable to hunt so they use the stored up fat from their summer feast as fuel until sea ice begins to form again in the spring.

But climate change has shifted this cycle, increasing the number of days and months in spring, summer and fall that polar bears go without their primary prey. As a result, and as the Conservation Management Plan outlines, polar bears can travel along the coast and wander into local villages to scour for food, leading to conflicts between the humans and bears.

There’s More We Can Do

Defenders is on the ground, striving for peaceful coexistence between humans and polar bears. We partnered with the community of Kaktovik to design and build improved polar bear-proof food storage containers – keeping people’s food secure from land locked bears scrounging for a substitute for their preferred seal meal. We worked with Alaska Native youth to create polar bear safety videos for their communities. We continue to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a crucial polar bear denning site, by supporting cutting edge maternal den research. And we work with Bering Strait coastal communities to increase their engagement with state and federal agencies to develop spill preparedness and response plans for potential spills – especially important due to increasing vessel traffic through the unpredictable sea ice in the Bering Strait, the largest marine mammal migratory corridor on the planet.

The Conservation Management Plan highlights the importance of the type of work Defenders is already accomplishing, and gives additional insight into how we can continue to aid in polar bear recovery. Defenders was at the table as this plan was formed, and we will continue to keep this document relevant to the critical needs of polar bears as new research and information become available.

Whether or not you live in Alaska, you can still rewrite the story of the biggest factor in the Conservation Management Plan: climate change. The plan clearly says, “It cannot be overstated that the single most important action for the recovery of polar bears is to significantly reduce the present levels of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are the primary cause of warming in the Arctic.” We all need to do our part. Steps like carpooling to work, using public transportation, buying locally sourced food and other carbon-reducing efforts may seem small, but they all add up to helping to slow sea ice melt, allowing polar bears to thrive in their icy home. If we each take action, it will make a huge collective difference to ensure that future generations get to marvel at someday seeing a polar bear in the wild.

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