MOSCOW, Russia, December 6, 2013 (ENS) – A crucial meeting of the five polar bear range states closed today in Moscow but not before government delegates ousted journalists and representatives of nonprofit groups who had been invited to provide input to the meeting. About 20 people were barred.

The NGO reps and reporters were only allowed to attend for two hours on Thursday, the first day of the two-day meeting.

Delegates from the countries that are Parties to the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears – Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, Russia and United States – gave no reason for their action except that they wanted to meet in private to discuss the remainder of the agenda.

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Polar bears in Spitzbergen, Norway (Photo by Exodus Travels)

Teresa Telecky, PhD, director of wildlife at the nonprofit Humane Society International, was one of those ousted from the meeting.

“This action has removed meaningful dialog between the governments and civil society on the issue of polar bear conservation,” she told ENS.

“We cannot raise our questions and concerns with the governments in this official forum. These include our concerns that Canada is allowing polar bear hunting at levels that are not sustainable and that exceed Canada’s own hunting quotas,” said Telecky, an expert on the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CITES.

Telecky serves as the executive director and vice president of the Species Survival Network, an international coalition of nongovernmental environmental organizations committed to the promotion, enhancement and strict enforcement of CITES.

“Polar bears are an iconic species that the public is greatly concerned about,” she said. “We NGOs represent millions of people all over the world who want to know what the governments are doing to protect polar bears. By excluding us, they are telling civil society that they will do what they want, behind closed doors, and our concerns and questions will not be addressed.”

“We support openness and transparency in multilateral agreements such as this,” said Telecky. “These countries are not discussing matters of national security and there is no good reason for observers to be excluded from these discussions.”

Scientists continue to predict that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be lost by 2050.

“Canada’s claims at this conference that polar bear hunting is not harming polar bear populations are disingenuous,” said Telecky, referring to a recent report by Canada’s Polar Bear Technical Committee.

“Canada’s own scientists are raising alarm about over-harvest, not only in the past year but in the past three to five years,” she said. “Canada and the other parties to the Polar Bear Agreement urgently need to address this problem.”

Scientific experts at the meeting detailed the impact of sea ice loss on polar bear survival, including loss of food sources, loss of body condition, and fewer cubs surviving.

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Polar bear tries to find a foothold on melting ice, Norway, July 2011 (Photo by Philip Witt)

“Polar bears already face an enormous threat from climate change, and we absolutely must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save the species,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, based in the United States. “Adding overhunting to an already deadly situation is speeding up the polar bear’s extinction.”

In 1973 the Polar Bear Agreement was adopted by five countries within the polar bear’s range to combat overhunting. Polar bears face new challenges as their sea-ice habitat disappears, and countries are struggling to keep up with the changes.

Despite the well-recognized threat of global warming, Canada tripled its quota for one already-declining polar bear population and is proposing increases in two other populations.

In 2012, 740 polar bears were shot by hunters in Canada – 77 more than the average over the previous five years of 663.

“Global sentiment on this issue seems clear, as most every country has banned the trade and commercial export of polar bear parts,” said Elly Pepper, policy advocate for the U.S.-based nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “Yet Canada continues to allow substantial harvest and trade. Their populations are perhaps key to the species climate change survival, making the country’s outlier stance all the more vexing.”

Prices for polar bear hides have quadrupled since 2007 to US$22,000 for a single hide, and prices have doubled in the last year alone.

Demand for polar bear skins is also growing, particularly in China where skins sell for up to US$80,000 each.

At the meeting, polar bear scientists said Thursday that three of the four polar bear populations that are known to be declining are also threatened by hunting.

“Polar bears need protection from skin sellers and marketers,” said Telecky. “We cannot stand by while polar bears are sold off to the highest bidder.”

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Skin of a polar bear shot by an Alaskan tribal hunter is inspected before shipment at the Barrow, Alaska airport. Tribal hunters are not restricted in the number of polar bears they may take. (Photo by Rajiv Sarathy)

The Polar Bear Specialist Group, an expert science panel created to provide scientific advice on the Agreement, told government delegates that of 19 polar bear subpopulations, four are currently declining, and nine remain too “data deficient” to determine a trend.

And while each polar bear population will respond differently to global warming in the short term, the story in the long term is the same – the polar bear faces total extinction within our lifetimes if the world fails to act on climate change, the scientists warned.

At the meeting, the Parties to the Polar Bear Agreement agreed to a declaration recognizing the importance of addressing climate change and underscoring that additional stressors, like overharvest, must be reduced.

Parties also agreed to address poaching and illegal trade and to improve reporting and monitoring of legal trade.

But, said Telecky, specific measures to implement the declaration remain unclear.

WWF, the world nature conservation organization, has collected more than 42,000 signatures from all over the world, in a petition presented to the governments of the polar bear range states in an attempt to convince them to take on serious commitments for the polar bear conservation.

“One of our requirements to the Arctic countries is an extensive study of polar bear populations by 2016,” said Vladimir Krever, WWF-Russia biodiversity coordinator. “Currently scientists do not know the size of the species populations, because its monitoring is a technically challenging task: huge distances, severe Arctic conditions, and others. Due to lack of data on the size and distribution of the populations, it is impossible to accurately determine measures for their protection.”

According to very approximate estimates, about 25,000 polar bears live in the Arctic.

The petition also asks the range states to complete a global conservation plan, and to work with indigenous peoples, international community, corporations, and organizations to make this work a reality.

“We welcome the commitments made today,” said WWF polar bear lead, Geoff York. “But we will also be watching to see that they are backed by action. WWF will track the activities of the states in an annual report card. We will also continue to support critical polar bear work across the Arctic, contributing our resources and expertise to assess the health of populations, identify and manage key habitats, and reduce conflict between bears and people.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.