An international meeting of government wildlife officials rejected a U.S. proposal to ban the global trade of polar bear parts Thursday, following an impassioned appeal by Canadian Inuits to preserve polar bear hunting in their communities.
There are between 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in the wild in Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, according to the most recent analysis, which was conducted in the early 1990s. Scientists project that as Arctic summer sea ice shrinks, many polar bear populations could decline 66 percent by mid-century.
Canada is the only nation with polar bears that allows sports hunting. With two-thirds of the world's polar bear population, Canada exports at least 300 polar bears for sale each year.
Terry Audla, who represents Canada's indigenous Arctic peoples as president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told delegates gathered in Bangkok for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that eliminating the global trade of polar bears would harm the Inuits' local economy. The species is currently listed on Appendix II of CITES, which requires a permit for anyone selling polar bear parts to a buyer overseas.
"A ban would affect our ability to buy the necessities of life, to clothe our children," Audla said. "We have to protect our means of putting food on the table and selling polar bear hides enables us to support ourselves."
Any CITES proposal requires a two-thirds majority of those present and voting for passage: 42 countries opposed the proposal, 38 voted in favor and 46--including all 27 members of the European Union--abstained.
The Obama administration had lobbied hard for passage of the measure in the months leading up to Thursday's vote, arguing that cutting back on hunting would provide some respite to a species under pressure from climate change.
Each year, an average of 3,200 items made from polar bears - including skins, claws, and teeth - are reported to be exported or re-exported from countries in which the animals live. Polar bear hides sell for an average of $2,000 to $5,000, while maximum hide prices have topped $12,000.
In an effort to address the concerns of native Alaskans, U.S. officials had included language in the proposal stating it would neither affect native Alaskans' subsistence harvest nor handicrafts made from polar bears.
Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said he and his colleagues were "obviously disappointed" with the decision.
"We will continue to work with our partners to reduce the pressure that trade in polar bear parts puts on this iconic Arctic species, even as we take on the longer term threat that climate change poses to polar bear," Hayes said.
Humane Society International Wildlife Director Teresa Telecky urged the United States and other countries to bring the proposal up for a vote one last time before the conference adjourns on March 15.
"CITES has left polar bears out in the cold once again," Telecky said. "We urge officials from those countries that want to see an end to the international commercial trade in the polar bear to work to overturn this vote by gathering additional support and bringing the proposal back to the plenary meeting next week."