A different cold war: Russia, U.S. fight to protect polar bears

By Aram Ter-Ghazaryan, Special to Russia Beyond the Headlines

The Wrangel Island Reserve in the Chukchi Sea has one of the greatest levels of biodiversity in the Arctic and is home to the world's largest population of polar bears. The reserve, which covers about 22,000 square miles consisting of both dry land and its aquatic buffer zone, had a population of nearly 6,000 polar bears in 2013, but their natural habitat is shrinking due to climate change.

"Polar bears mainly live on ice, and if several years ago in the summer we could see the edge of the ice several kilometers from shore, now the ice is melting and is tens of kilometers away far over the horizon," said Alexander Gruzdev, head of the Wrangel Island Reserve. This will certainly have an impact on the polar bears' future, he added.


Shared population

The Chukotka-Alaska population of polar bears, one of the world's 19 remaining populations of this species, is shared by Russia and the United States.


"In the U.S., polar bears are active mainly in the spring and summer when ice usually remains, and they come to Russia in autumn when they can still hunt because there is no ice yet, and they remain here until early spring," Gruzdev said.

The agreement between the Russian and American governments on preserving and managing the Chukotka-Alaska population of polar bears came into effect in 2007.

Both countries now share responsibility for protecting the species. According to the agreement, scientific data and traditional knowledge acquired from the indigenous peoples is exchanged.

In late 2016, Russia and the United States jointly studied the polar bears living along the border of Alaska and Chukotka. Their findings will help develop a three-year plan to save the species.

"The previous studies were conducted more than 10 years ago, and since then both the climate and the bear population have changed,'' said Gruzdev. "There are modern monitoring methods for studying polar bears, and it was necessary to develop a joint Russian-American methodology so that we could share and compare data. We must try to understand what is happening on both sides of the border in order to save the polar bears."

The joint methodology, he continues, now includes parameters such as genetic analysis, gender studies of the population, cubs' survival rate and their body fat.


Humans as predators

History has already seen periods of global warming when bears had to relocate to the shore, forests and the tundra, Gruzdev explains. "The current climate change in itself will not lead to the extinction of polar bears, but such a tragedy might be caused by humans."

Danger to polar bears comes not only from residents of the Far North, who often kill approaching predators out of self-defense. Polar bears also fall victim to poachers and, worse still, to the sadistic shenanigans of sailors from different countries who fish in coastal waters.

"There have been cases when sailors would chase a polar bear, not allow the animal to reach an ice floe or the shore, and then would for hours torment the animal until it died of exhaustion in the water," Gruzdev said. "Thankfully, the authorities have stepped up patrols and there has been just one such incident over the past five years."

The eighth session of the Russian-U.S. Polar Bear Commission ended with the signing of an agreement on a sustainable polar bear hunting number. In 2017, local residents are allowed to hunt no more than 58 polar bears, of which not more than one-third can be females.


This article originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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