International “range states” meet to discuss polar bear conservation

A presentation being given at the 2018 Polar Bear Range States Meeting in Fairbanks, AK. (Alaska’s Energy Desk/ Ravenna Koenig)

Representatives from Norway, Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States met in Fairbanks Feb. 2-4, 2018, to talk about polar bears. Those countries are all part of a treaty signed in 1973 to coordinate protection of the species. And for about a decade now, those same countries have been holding meetings every two years to address the threats that polar bears are facing, especially from climate change.

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At Pike’s Waterfront Lodge on the Chena River in Fairbanks, dozens of people mill about a cavernous meeting room, different languages echoing off the walls. A weekend-long meeting of what’s referred to as “the range states” — or the five nations where polar bears live — has just ended.

When the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed by these countries in 1973, the main issue they were trying to deal with was the dwindling numbers of polar bears in many areas, largely due to sport hunting. Not anymore.

“The number one challenge is loss of polar bear habitat, meaning sea ice,” James Wilder, the polar bear program leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. He’s one of several people representing the United States here.

A few years ago the range states finalized an initiative called the Circumpolar Action Plan, essentially a way for the different countries to coordinate their efforts to address things like human-bear conflicts, climate change and bear management with oil and gas development.

This meeting is, in part, a way for the group to catch up on the work they’ve done under that plan since they last met in 2015. One example: an update on an ongoing study on the effectiveness of bear spray on polar bears in Arctic temperatures. As sea ice disappears, polar bears are spending more time on land, leading to more conflicts with humans.

“It can range from polar bears raiding fishing camps on the coast, to getting into landfills in coastal villages, to traveling through and inhabiting oil and gas fields,” Wilder said. “It can also go to the other extreme of attacking people.”

The delegates for the U.S. include the State of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, the U.S. State Department and USGS, among others.

Nicole Kanayurak spoke for the North Slope Borough at the end of the meeting. She thanked the range states for recognizing that indigenous knowledge is an important part of managing and researching polar bears. But she also urged them to include native communities to a greater extent in that work.

“What we have drawn from the last two days is that there may be missing variables and a void that the intricacies of our indigenous knowledge on the ground may inform,” Kanayurak said.  “It is important for our people that we are equitably involved in polar bear affairs.”

Other groups representing indigenous perspectives at the meeting echoed this push for more inclusion.

James Wilder says that this has been and will continue to be a point of focus for the range states.

“What we heard repeatedly during this meeting — and the range states are committed to doing a better job with — is working more closely with the native people,” Wilder said, “incorporating traditional ecological knowledge and subsistence users concerns and knowledge into the management and scientific processes that govern what we do.”

Wilder says that one example of how the U.S. is working towards more inclusion is a scientific working group they have with Russia. The group is designing studies on polar bears in the Chukchi Sea, and includes native hunters from both countries.

The range states will next convene in Norway in 2020.

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