An international action plan is to be drawn up to save the polar bear, now threatened with extinction because climate change is melting its Arctic sea ice habitat.
The five countries with polar bear populations, the US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland, agreed in principle yesterday on a circumpolar scheme to protect the animal's dwindling living space all around its range.
The plan, to be drawn up by a team of polar bear experts, is likely to call for protected areas for denning in winter and no hunting in summer in Arctic territory of each of the five nations – where future industrial activity would be limited. It would also seek to establish reserves in those areas of sea ice likely to be the last to melt as global warming takes hold: the High Arctic regions of north-west Greenland and the Canadian archipelago. At the moment this is an area of heavy ice and the bears prefer the edge of the ice to hunt – but this may be where the edge of the ice is located in future.
The plan is also likely to deal with the issue of hunting, or "harvesting", the bears by Arctic native peoples (and in Canada also by sports hunters), which, as highlighted in The Independent on Monday, kills about 700 polar bears a year out of a global population of approximately 22,000.
The government of Norway convened the meeting and set high expectations. "It would be an amazing crime against future generations if we did not save the polar bear," said the Norwegian Environment Minister, Erik Solheim. The action plan is likely to take account of the threat of climate change in setting sustainable hunting quotas. Although nothing has yet been decided, this might mean a reduction in hunting in some areas, although hunting as a practice is likely to continue for some time.
The circumpolar plan was agreed at the end of a three-day summit on polar bear conservation in the Norwegian Arctic city of Tromso. The closing statement called for action on climate change in strong terms, clearly aimed at the meeting in Bonn in 10 days, where negotiators from all UN member states will begin trying to construct a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
Geoff York, polar bear co-ordinator for the Arctic Programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), said: "Ultimately, if the sea ice goes completely in the summer time, and we haven't done anything conclusive to try to turn that around, we're likely to have no polar bears at all in the long run. No sea ice – no seals – no bears."