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Russia: Hunting Polar Bears To Save Them

No food here (epa) WASHINGTON, January 18, 2007 -- In December, Russian officials found evidence that two polar bears had traveled within 200 kilometers of the villages of Vankarem and Reirkaipii located along the Chukotka Sea -- a long way from their usual habitat.

The polar bears were attracted by the rotting carcasses of dead walruses.

Warmer winters have introduced new layers of risk for Russia's polar bear population. With less sea ice and a shortened hunting season, the bears have had to widen their search for food thus increasing their contact with humans.

Margaret Williams, the director of the World Wildlife Fund's Bering Sea Ecoregion Program, says that "climate change is a really huge, huge factor that's changing a lot of things for people and bears, causing bears to spend more time on land and increasing the potential for human-bear contact."

Poaching Problem

Human-bear contact will likely mean more poaching. Poachers in Russia's Far North have long plagued the polar bears -- dotted in colonies along the sea coast of the Far North.

Fearing poachers would wipe out the polar bear, in 1956, the Russian government declared the species endangered and banned all hunting of polar bears.

The International Polar Bear Agreement was signed in 1973 allowing only the use of traditional weapons in hunting polar bears because the international polar bear population was being overharvested around the world.

The problem in Russia -- and one that's likely to increase given the greater human-bear contact -- is that poaching legislation is difficult to enforce. With polar bear skins selling for an average of $4,500, the stakes are high. And the fines and the prison sentences are relatively small. A couple of years ago, Williams reports that her group found 55 polar bear skins available for sale on Russian websites.

Under Russian law, villagers are allowed to shoot a bear in self-defense but only after they have called Moscow and asked for permission first.

Williams says that in reality -- particularly in a crisis situation -- some bears are killed first and Moscow called later.

"In one of the larger towns earlier this year, we had heard that eight bears had been killed and three of them were skinned," Williams says. "So, that's kind of unofficial information, but anyway we know that maybe some bears are being removed in the guise of some other excuse but then the skins are being taken for sale."

Controlled Hunting

Now some environmentalists believe that allowing some hunting, rather than a total ban, may be the best way to save the bears.

Williams says that controlled, responsible hunting is what's needed. "It's going to be really important to work with the [native] communities because they have a stake in managing the polar bear population in the best way possible, and they want to make sure the bears are around for a long time," Williams says.

Scientists are hoping local people in the Arctic can monitor bear populations

"Having people who are allowed to hunt very carefully and responsibly -- they're going to be the guys who are controlling against the poachers who are just doing it for the skins."

The United States and Canada allow indigenous people to engage in what is called "subsistence" hunting. Canada also allows a small regulated hunt for sport among nonindigenous peoples.

Indigenous people in Alaska have been organizing "polar bear brigades," and their neighbors in Chukotkan villages are starting to adopt some of the same methods. The brigades use loud sounds, among other techniques, to scare bears away from villages. The brigades also educate residents about how bear behavior and how to spot "problem bears."

International Support

With the greater risk to polar bear populations, there is growing international support for controlled hunting.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would enable the implementation of the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Agreement, which will help protect polar bears from overhunting.

The agreement, which was first signed in 2000, was stalled in the Congress for the past several years. The treaty's provisions will allow the indigenous peoples of Russia to hunt polar bears legally under strict quotas for the first time in 51 years.

Polar bears aren't the only bears affected by the warmer weather. In northern Spain, scientists have noticed that brown bears that usually hibernate in winter are roaming through the forests searching for food.

Bears normally hibernate during winter as food is too scarce. But scientists in Spain think that the warmer weather makes it worth foraging for nuts and berries.

It looks likely that bears will continue to be seen in places that they have never been seen before.