SEATTLE -- Faced with growing concerns about the hunting of polar bears in Canada, the Obama administration announced Friday it will again support a ban on trade of the animals, whose hides fetch up to $16,000 each on the international market.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a position paper that advocates including the polar bear on the list of species that are subject to the most stringent constraints on international trade.
The effect of such a move -- if adopted by the 176-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora when it meets in March -- would be to prohibit the sale of polar bear furs, claws, teeth and other body parts outside of Canada.
Hunts by aboriginal Inuits in Alaska and other polar states would still be allowed, but outside sale of the pelts would not.
The U.S. policy paper said the steady loss in recent years of sea ice -- critical to polar bears, which use it as a platform to hunt seals -- already has placed the animals in a precarious position. Though there are still up to 25,000 polar bears around the world, many of their populations are threatened and their numbers in several places are diminishing, the statement said.
The decision has been hard-fought by Canada, which has some of the world's healthiest polar bear populations. Canadian officials say their hunts -- a critical part of subsistence and the economy in many of the impoverished rural regions of the Far North -- are carefully regulated and quotas are set to ensure bears are not adversely affected.
Canada does not allow a commercial hunt per se, but Inuit hunters often sell polar bear skins to international fur brokers. Foreign trophy hunters are permitted to kill polar bears in Canada so long as they are operating under the license of a local aboriginal hunter.
The U.S. was unsuccessful in a previous effort to win an international trade ban -- facing opposition from the European Union and other Arctic nations -- and many advocates worried the federal government would stop pushing the issue in the face of conservative political opposition to a "climate change" agenda linked inextricably with polar bears.
Significantly, Russia announced recently it would support a ban if the U.S. proposed one.