Controversies over the “Sustainable” Harvest of Polar Bears: On Dec. 20, 2016, the USFWS (Region 7, Achorage, Alaska) issued its Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan. This plan illustrates some key emerging issues of wildlife politics. First, in regard to charismatic species like polar bears, the concept of “sustainable harvest” is controversial and USFWS seeks to avoid the controversy as much as possible. For example, in its summary of changes made to the Final plan compared to the previous draft,” the USFWS said that they “removed nearly all uses…referencing subsistence harvest from the main part of the report and moved discussion of “harvest management” of polar bears to the technical appendices. The report makes the point that “Polar bears are important as a nutritional, cultural, and economic resource for indigenous people around the Arctic” and that the Marine Mammal Protect Act (MMPA) specifically allows “Alaska native people to harvest threatened species”…even for populations that are declining due to environmental effects—as long as the harvest is responsibly managed… and does not in itself become a driver of declining ability to secure long-term persistence (P33). Indeed, the report often refers to “removals” rather than harvests of polar bears—the removal term is a bit more general and includes “the combination of subsistence harvest, defense of human life kills, and other mortalities.”
The polar bear case also illustrates the international nature of conservation of species like polar bears and the issue of failed implementation of conservation policies. The U.S. and Russia signed an agreement that, if implemented, should protect the Russian population of polar bears because it defines a sustainable harvest level as a “harvest level which does not exceed net annual recruitment to the population and maintains the population at or near its current level, taking into account all forms of removal, and considers the status and trend of the population, based on reliable scientific information. However, the problem as the report admits is that “information on bears removed in Russia was not available for their analysis” and that poaching of polar bears in Russia, though it was banned in 1956, rose to high levels during the collapse of the USSR and may well be unsustainable (see page 70). Indeed, data availability even on poaching in Alaska is lacking or of questionable validity because of the remoteness of the areas inhabited by polar bears. Finally, the report views climate change as a major threat to the long-term survival of polar bears but, as we know, the Trump Administration is not likely to accept climate change as a serious threat that would warrant protections from “harvest.” The report as well as summary of changes made in it and a question and answer sheet concerning it are all available from: https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/polarbear/pbmain.htm
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