An international treaty will set the first-ever limit on the number of polar bears Natives in Northwest Alaska can harvest while also legalizing polar bear hunting in Russia for the first time in decades.
Details are still being worked out, but the Russia-U.S. commission governed by the treaty agreed last spring to let Native subsistence hunters in each country take 29 bears, for a total of 58, from the Alaska-Chukotka polar bear population.
Of that, hunters on each side will be allowed to harvest only nine or 10 females, said Regehr.
The effort, with equal input from indigenous stakeholders and scientists, is designed to conserve polar bear numbers primarily by eliminating high amounts of illegal hunting in Russia, said Eric Regehr, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The limits could change based on new information. They won't take effect until at least next year. The four-member commission -- comprised of two Russian and two U.S. members -- must still determine how the hunt will be monitored and regulated.
Those plans will be more firmly laid out at a commission meeting this spring.
The Alaska-Chukotka population, very roughly estimated at about 2,000 bears, is one of two polar bear populations in the U.S. There's no evidence that those bears, unlike their counterparts ranging between Alaska and Canada -- the Southern Beaufort Sea population -- are declining in numbers, said Regehr.
That seems to be in part because the Alaska-Chukotka bears have greater access to seals and other food. Still, the scientific world and Natives who hunt the bears share concerns that they will suffer too if long-term predictions about climate change continue to reduce the sea ice where they hunt.
Thus, the new measures set by the commission last spring. The limits stemmed from the treaty signed by both governments in 2000, a document that stresses cooperative management between scientists and Native hunters.
In the U.S., the quota won't represent an immediate change for Alaska Natives, who have taken about 30 polar bears from the population in recent years, a drop from previous years.
But it still provides a new level of security for the bears. Alaska Natives are the only group in the U.S. allowed to hunt polar bears, thanks to an exemption in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Inupiaq from Northwest have never faced a limit on the number they can hunt, but must harvest the bears in a non-wasteful manner.
The meat feeds families and sometimes dog teams, said Regehr. The hide and other body parts, if they're significantly altered, can be used to make handicrafts.
The limit has been well-received among Alaska Natives, said Jack Omelak, deputy director of the Alaska Nanuq Commission. The Nanuq group has a seat on the international commission.
"The initial response to this quota of 29 has been accepted rather well," he said. "Of course, what we're talking about is another restriction on one of our inherent rights. Before this agreement we had no quota on polar bears, but they were still used responsibly."
Natives value efforts that conserve resources for future hunters, he said. In the past, before there were state and federal managers, villages imposed their own "internal controls" to reduce hunting during game shortages
Many Alaska Natives also support the limit because it opens the door for their cousins across the Bering Strait to legally hunt for the first time in 65 years, he said.
The limit in Russia is designed to reduce illegal hunting there -- about 70 to 300 are killed yearly -- by bringing village hunters to the table to help with management and monitoring.
Examples exist around the world of how local involvement has helped protect game populations, said Margaret Williams, head of the World Wildlife Fund's U.S. Arctic program.
Villagers might be the only hope to monitor hunts in remote areas of Russia, where poachers are known to hunt bears for hides that can be made into valuable rugs, she said.
The conservation group generally supports the treaty.
"Creating a mechanism for communities to be involved in managing their own resources is very important," Williams said. "Both Alaska Natives and Chukotka Natives want to ensure there will be a polar bear population for many years to come."
An effort between Canada and Alaska Natives to protect the Southern Beaufort Sea population will serve as a model, said Regehr.
With monitors and taggers in villages, and scientific support provided by the North Slope Borough's wildlife department, they've set a conservative quota in past years. Recently, they proposed dropping their subsistence harvest to a total of 70 polar bears a year -- 35 for each country -- from a total of 80.
The Southern Beaufort population consists of 1,526 polar bears, and there's evidence numbers are declining there, said Regehr.
As for the Alaska-Chukotka bears, the treaty calls for the Russian government to provide resources to monitor the hunt, once the limit is implemented.
But the best oversight will come from the villagers themselves, said Regehr.
"In reality, it's buy-in from the villages that will be critical to getting this done.
Eastern Siberia and the Chukotka Peninsula are so big villagers have to be involved. Without Native hunters and community organizations, "there's no way to control how many bears are shot," he said.
The commission members are Geoff Haskett, Alaska director for USFWS, Charlie Johnson, director of the Alaska Nanuq Commission, Amirkhan Amirkhanov, the Russian federal government representative and Sergei Kavry, the Native commissioner from Russia.
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