Alaska polar bear numbers declining: U.S. agency

Thu Jun 18, 2009 9:21pm EDT
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By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Polar bear populations in and around Alaska are declining due to continued melting of sea ice and Russian poaching, according to reports released Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fewer polar bears have survived in the southern Beaufort Sea, which extends from northern Alaska to parts of Canada, and in the Chukchi and Bering Seas between northwestern Alaska and Russia, the agency's draft population assessments show.

Officials say the drop among the Chukchi and Bering bears is likely steeper than for those in the Beaufort, due to a more dramatic melt of sea ice -- which the bears need to travel and forage for food -- and an illegal Russian hunt believed to be killing 150 to 250 bears a year.

The assessments, though incomplete, are disturbing, said an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned and later sued the federal government to add polar bears and walruses to the U.S. Endangered Species Act list.

"That information, when you look at it, paints a pretty grim picture for the species," attorney Brendan Cummings said.

The United States officially recognized polar bears as an endangered species last year as a result of the warming Arctic climate, which has wiped out much of the summer sea ice critical to the animals' survival.

Russian poaching, believed to be spurred by a market for bear hides, represents what the Fish and Wildlife Service describes as a potential compounding threat to the population, said Bruce Woods, the agency's spokesman in Alaska.

"Of course, since it's illegal hunting, it's very difficult to quantify," Woods said.   Continued...

<p>A polar bear sow and two cubs are seen on the Beaufort Sea coast within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. REUTERS/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Handout</p>