International Polar Bear Day

February 27 has been designated as the annual International Polar Bear Day by the conservation organization, Polar Bears International.  The day has been celebrated annually since 2012.  The annual event seeks to educate the general public about the plight of polar bears globally and to encourage individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by turning down their heat and turning up their air conditioners.  Polar Bears International lists its mission as seeking to “conserve polar bears and the sea ice they depend on.”

Polar bear on an ice flow in Ukkusiksalik National Park, Nunavut, Canada (photo by Ansgar Walk)

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is superbly adapted to living in the frigid conditions of the Arctic ecosystem.  It is a marine species by definition (hence its scientific name), living on floating sea ice as its preferred habitat.  Its main food is the ringed seal, which also lives on and around sea ice and is a fat-rich dietary source needed by bears.  Polar bears are evolved from a common ancestor with the brown bear (grizzly bear).  They grow to 9 feet in length and 1400 pounds in weight.  During summer when sea ice disappears, polar bears must retreat to land.  Food is insufficient for the bears, and they lose weight during the time they must spend off the ice.

Consequently, global warming is a primary threat to the survival of polar bears.  Arctic sea ice has been disappearing rapidly, with the area of ice decreasing every summer and the length of time ice habitat is available to bears also decreasing.  Each year, bears are spending longer on land, losing more weight, emerging in the fall in worse condition, and having smaller cubs that have higher post-natal mortality.  Photographs of emaciated polar bears, trapped on tiny ice floes, are heart-rending reminders of their plight.

For these reasons, polar bears are receiving higher levels of protection around the world.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the species “vulnerable” to extinction.  IUCN estimates that together the 19 distinct populations of polar bears around the Arctic region number about 22,000-31,000 individuals.  However, detailed knowledge of their abundance is scarce, as the animals live in remote areas that are largely inaccessible to humans.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty to which the U.S. is party, regulates global trade in the species, but still allows some harvest.

In the United States, the polar bear is listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  It is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which in general prohibits hunting and other forms of exploitation of polar bears.  However, Native Americans in the Arctic region can harvest polar bears for subsistence uses and native handicrafts.

References:

CITES.  CITES and Polar Bear.  Available at:  https://cites.org/eng/news/sg/2013/20131203_polar-bear.php. Accessed February 26, 2017.

Polar Bears International.  The Life, Land, and Future of the Polar Bear.  Available at:  http://polarbearsinternational.org/. Accessed February 26, 2017.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  2013.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Final Polar Bear Special Rule.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/alaska/external/newsroom/pdf/13-04.pdf?SiteName=FWS&Entity=PRAsset&SF_PRAsset_PRAssetID_EQ=131878&XSL=PressRelease&Cache=True. Accessed February 26, 2017.

World Widlife Fund.  Polar bear status, distribution & population.  Available at:  http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/wildlife/polar_bear/population/.  Accessed February 26, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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