A polar bear rests with her cubs on the pack ice in the Beaufort Sea in northern… (Steve Amstrup / U.S. Fish…)
Faced with growing concerns about the hunting of polar bears in Canada, the Obama administration announced Friday it will again support a ban on the commercial trade of polar bears, 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.
This post has been updated as indicated below
[Updated 5:38 p.m., Oct. 5, 2012: “Certain types of items, such as hunting trophies, live animals for zoological parks, and specimens for scientific research are generally considered by CITES to be primarily non-commercial,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
Under the U.S. proposal, any international movement of polar bears, their parts and products would require permits from both the exporting country — certifying that the export was not detrimental to the survival of the species — and the importing country. The importing country would have to determine that the import was not primarily for commercial purposes and also not harmful to the species’ survival.]
The U.S. policy paper said the steady loss in recent years of sea ice — critical to polar bears who 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 many places are diminishing, the statement said.
“Therefore, a precautionary approach … is necessary to ensure that primarily commercial trade does not compound the threats posed to the species by loss of habitat,” it 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 their 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 — an enterprise that often costs up to $50,000 for each hunt.
“Everybody knows that polar bears are threatened by climate change, but few people realize that the second-biggest threat to the species is commercial trade,” said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several conservation groups that have pushed for a trade ban.
“As polar bears decline during the melting of the sea ice, one of the best things we can do is to remove one of the other most important stresses on them, and it is the easiest one to remove,” he said.
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. Norway and Denmark, which votes for Greenland, have not announced their positions yet.
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