2nd meeting of PBSG Morges, Switzerland 1970

Scientists from five nations voice concern for polar bear survival

The great white polar bears (Ursus maritimus) which are found only in the five nations surrounding the north polae and in the Arctic no-man's land are an endangered species, but prospects for their survival are good - if mankind is careful.

This consensus appeared yesterday at the conclusion of a three-day meeting of polar bear scientists from five nations who came to Morges, Switzerland, to discuss progress and compare data on their individual programs of polar bear research.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which has been given responsibility for compiling scientific research data on the bear, convened the meeting.

All the scientists noted the increasing economic development in the Arctic, and expressed general concern that serious ecological problems could arise as a result of oil spills, off-shore drilling and other economic activity. Pressure on the bear is also increasing because of growing markets for polar bear hides.

Scientists at the meeting were from Canada, Denmark, Norway, the USA, and the USSR - the five circumpolar nations. They are members of the IUCN Survival Service Commission's Polar Bear Group. Dr. John S. Tener, Director of the Canadian Wildlife Service, was Chairman of the meeting.

Considerable progress was reported in the research activity of the last two years.

Discussions centered primarily on bear movements, denning areas, discreteness of populations, and, to a lesser extent, harvest figures, productivity, and the density and abundance of the species throughout its circumpolar range. While insufficient data were presented on which to base precise estimates on the abundance of the species, some agreement emerged, concerning movements of polar bears and the discreteness of certain populations, about which little has heretofore been known. From the tagging program and other research, it now appears that there are probably five more or less identifiable bear populations. These are located in: (1) the Spitsbergen - Franz Josef Land - East Greenland region, (2) the Hudson Bay region of Canada, (3) the high Canadian Arctic, (4) the high Canada - eastern Alaska region, and (5) the western Alaska - eastern USSR region.

Two years ago the group standardized research techniques involving ear tags, dye numbering on the fur, lip tattoos and tag exchanges. Much discussion was devoted to the development of techniques for live capture and tagging. This work has been carried out successfully on a cooperative international basis and more than 450 polar bears have now been tagged.

Radio telemetry equipment and techniques were also discussed in detail. The Canadian telemetry program is already producing useful information, and Alska is experimenting with a new type of equipment that may greatly increase the effectiveness of existing equipment.

Data were presented which helped to locate much more precisely the major denning areas in the Arctic. The main area so far delineated are in Canada and the USSR, with minor areas found in northeast Greenland and in Spitsbergen. It appears that bears rarely den in Alaska. An important finding was that Kong Karls Land (sic), near Spitsbergen, once thought to be a a major denning area, is perhaps relatively insignificant, and that most polar bears moving into the Spitsbergen region appear to come from the Soviet Union on the westward moving ice. Also, polar bears along the Alaska coast most likely move in from eastern Siberia (Wrangel Island) and from western Canada.

The need for much more knowledge about climate and sea ice conditions was stressed in order to understand both the movements and size of polar bear populations. This is of primary importance in understanding the occurrence and abundance of bears in all Arctic regions.

Good cooperation among the five nations was reported with respect to all research. Food habit studies as well as behavioral studies have been instituted by Canada in cooperation with universities. Physiological research is continuing in Norway and it is hoped that the other nations will cooperate in this endeavor. The work by Canada analyzing the concentration of DDT in fat tissues of bears was discussed and this work will be extended on a cooperative basis. New research in Alaska involves radio tracking and censusing with heat-sensitive scanners aboard aircraft.

It was noted that polar bear hunting is an intrinsic part of the culture of the Thule and many Canadian Eskimos in addition to being a very important source of food and clothing. While it will be very hard to change their way of life, this may be necessary because the Eskimo population is growing faster than the polar bear population. Hunting of polar bears in Greenland is restricted to residents of one year or more.

The polar bear is totally protected in the USSR. It is also protected in reserves on Kong Karls Land (Norway), James Bay (Canada), and Wrangel Island (USSR). Cubs and sows with cubs are protected throughout much of the animal's range.

The scientists estimated that a total of 1250 polar bears were killed in 1968.

The group did not make an estimate of the total number of polar bears. The Soviet Union's scientist, however, believe the total is 10,000.

In addition to continuing established activities, a number of specific areas for research collaboration were agreed on. These include collection of blood, milk and skulls for taxonomic determinations, food habits studies, and collection of fat samples for pesticide determinations.

It was agreed that next year Canada would initiate a comprehensive study of the correlation between polar bear numbers and movements, ice movements, seal distribution and abundance, and other factors with a view to developing a statistical model to describe polar bear population dynamics. Delegates agreed to provide information required for the proper development of an ecological model. There will be a full exchange of information about the model as it is developed.

The Group elected Dr. Andrew Macpherson of Canada as its Chairman for the next two years, succeeding Dr. S. M. Uspenskii of the USSR. The chairmanship rotates every two years.

The next meeting of the Group will be in January, 1972.

Participating were Dr. John S. Tener, as Chairman of the meeting; Dr. Charles J. Jonkel and Dr. Andrew Macpherson of Canada; Dr. Christian Vibe of Denmark; Mr. Thor Larsen and Mr. Magnar Norderhaug of Norway; Mr. James W. Brooks and Mr. Jack W. Lentfer of the United States; Dr. Savva M. Uspenskii and Dr. A. A. Kistschinski of the USSR; Dr. Richard A. Cooley (Group technical secretary), and Dr. Colin W. Holloway, executive secretary of the IUCN Survival Service Commission.


5 February 1970