Polar bears depend on sea ice for essential tasks like hunting and breeding. As Arctic sea ice disappears due to climate change, bears across the species’ 19 subpopulations are feeling the strain.
But even as scientists try to quantify just how much melting sea ice is affecting polar bears, another group that depends on the iconic mammal for subsistence also is at risk of losing an important nutritional and economic resource. Indigenous people throughout the Arctic harvest polar bears each year. How that activity ― combined with climate change over the long term ― will impact bear populations in the future requires more science and monitoring.
A new, two-part University of Washington project aims to explore the interacting effects of climate change and subsistence hunting on polar bears, while also illuminating the cultural value of the species to indigenous peoples and the role they play in conservation. Led by Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the UW’s Polar Science Center and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the three-year project will include a public art-science exhibition that combines photography, storytelling and science focused on polar bears, climate change and local Inuit communities in Greenland.
“Broadly, people know polar bears are negatively affected by loss of sea ice, so they are understandably upset to hear polar bears are also being hunted,” Laidre said. “The reality is, the reason for the projected decline of polar bears is a much bigger, global problem related to human-caused climate change and is largely unrelated to harvest. Managing and conserving polar bears in a changing climate has to include working closely with local Arctic communities and respecting subsistence needs.”