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Polar Bear

Ursus Maritimus - "Nanuq"

Population Status


A discrete population of polar bears is known to range in the southern Beaufort Sea from Icy Cape, Alaska, to the Baillie Islands, NWT. There appears to be considerable movement of polar bears within this population. The annual distribution is primarily linked to the distribution of the multi-year pack ice and the availability of seals. Polar bears may become locally abundant along the Yukon coast in years when the permanent ice pack is blown south to the mainland coast. Polar bears have also been reported along the coast in association with beached marine mammals.

Population size:

The population of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea is believed to be about 2000, although the actual number ranging off the coast of the Yukon is unknown and presumed to vary.

Population trend:

A mark-recapture study has just been completed in order to assess the population of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf.

Unique or special characteristics:

  • Polar bears in the Yukon are part of a large population ranging into Alaska and the NWT; therefore management requires interjurisdictional cooperation.
  • They have low reproductive rates, large home ranges, and are fairly specialized.

Habitat Features

Polar bears are marine mammals with a diet primarily of ringed seals. They are generally associated with pack-ice where they can travel and hunt. However, pregnant female bears commonly come onto land to den. From 1971-1979 four maternity dens were located on the mainland of the Yukon. More recently, from 1981-1987, with the help of radio collars, it was found that 13 of 74 maternal dens (18%) of Beaufort Sea polar bears were located on the mainland in northeastern Alaska and in Canada, and 4 on land-fast ice close to shore (6%). Most dens were on drifting pack ice, as far as 550 km offshore. Denning locations are considered to be outdated. In 2006 a project began, headed by the Canadian Wildlife Service, to examine denning on the North Slope.



The harvest of polar bears in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region is restricted by quota allocated to local Hunters and Trappers Committees (HTC).

The annual harvest is monitored, through compulsory reporting of the harvest and submission of a non-canine tooth, under the Management Agreement for Polar Bears in the South Beaufort Sea (1988) between the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic and the Inupiat of northeastern Alaska.


Territorial laws, under the respective Wildlife Acts of Yukon and NWT, apply to all non-Inuvialuit hunting with Inuvialuit guides. Regulations of the National Parks Act apply within Ivvavik National Park. Within Canada, polar bear tags may be used for guided commercial sport hunters.

Harvesting Rights
AreaInuvialuit HuntersOthers Hunters
Ivvavik National Park Exclusive None Permitted
Herschel Island Territorial Park Exclusive Inuvialuit Guided
East of the Babbage River Exclusive Inuvialuit Guided
Adjoining NWT Exclusive Inuvialuit Guided
Offshore Exclusive Inuvialuit Guided


The occurrence of polar bears on the coast during the summer tourist season is uncommon and unpredictable, although there have been parties of adventurers who have seen a polar bear and it easily becomes the highlight of their western arctic summer holiday. More typically, polar bears are far offshore during the summer tourist season, providing limited opportunities for viewing. The Aklavik HTC chooses not to use its polar bear tags for commercial sport hunts as is done in other HTCs.


There is a growing concern of the effects of climate change on polar bears. In the southern part of their distribution, a trend towards longer ice-free seasons has affected their life history. Climate change also affects prey species. Other threats to polar bears are oil spills or pollution from other marine contaminants, and disruptions of denning habitat. As top predators, these bears concentrate a number of pollutants in their bodies, which could increase mortality if the levels become toxic. This species is highly vulnerable to overharvest of adult females due to its slow reproductive rate.

Species at Risk Status

special concern
special concern
Appendix II

Research and Monitoring


A mark-recapture study has recently been completed in the Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf to establish a firm baseline of research information on distribution, movements, and population dynamics of these polar bears. A den survey is currently underway.

The Canadian Wildlife Service studied polar bears in the Beaufort Sea during 1971-1979, 1985-1987, and 1992-1994 with the primary objective of determining demographic features and movement patterns. The US Fish and Wildlife Service also initiated polar bear studies in 1985 in the Beaufort Sea off northern Alaska to determine demographic and movement patterns, food habits, habitat use, and the distribution and characteristics of den sites. This extensive study continues with the aid of satellite radio collars. An ongoing program in Canada, with the assistance of hunters and biological submissions, is the monitoring of pollutant levels in polar bear tissue.


One apparent deficiency of polar bear management in the Yukon is the lack of guaranteed protection of special denning habitat. There is no recent information on denning patterns.


The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for the management of marine mammals in Canada.

Management Jurisdictions
Ivvavik National Park IFA Parks Canada IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature)

Inuvialuit Inupiat Management Agreement for Polar Bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea (1988)

International Polar Bear Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat
Hershel Island Territorial Park Yukon Wildlife Act, Wild Animal and Plant Protection Act YTG Denning
East of the Babbage River National Parks Act YTG Denning
Adjoining NWT NWT Wildlife Act GNWT Coastal
Offshore In Canada: IFA, In Alaska: The Marine Mammal Protection Act GNWT Coastal

Polar bear management is guided by the International Polar Bear Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat (1973). Two international technical advisory groups, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialists Group and the Technical Advisory Committee of the Beaufort Sea Polar Bear Management Agreement, also guide the management and research of polar bears in an advisory capacity. Although the terms of these international agreements are not enforceable in any country and there is no infrastructure to oversee compliance, the agreements have contributed to legal protection and regulation within the signatory countries. The Wild Animal and Plant Protection Act (which replaces CITES) will control the export of polar bears or parts thereof.

Community-based Information

In 2004, the Inuvialuit Cultural Resources Centre prepared a report titled “Tariurmiutuakun qanuq atuutiviksaitlu ilitchuriyaqput ingilraan Inuvialuit qulianginnin = Learning about marine resources and their use through Inuvialuit oral history”. Transcripts from two Inuvialuit oral history collections were reviewed to see what could be learned about marine resources and their use within the southeastern Beaufort Sea. The study area included the coast from the Yukon/United States border in the west to the Franklin Bay area in the east. Information was compiled on beluga and bowhead whales, some coastal birds, fish, polar bears and seals, in an effort to provide a foundation for developing future projects on Inuvialuit knowledge of marine resources.

Related Literature and Information Sources

Amstrup, S. 1987. Polar bear denning in the Canadian Beaufort Sea: a summary. Unpubl. report U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage.

Amstrup, S., G. Durner, I. Stirling, and T. McDonald. 2005. Allocating Harvests among Polar Bear Stocks in the Beaufort Sea. Arctic. Vol. 58, no. 3, pp. 247-259.

Amstrup, S., I., Stirling and J. Lentrer. 1986. Size and trends of Alaskan polar bear populations. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 14: 241-254.

COSEWIC 2002. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the polar bear Ursus maritimus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa.

Durner, G., S. Amstrup and A. Fischbach. 2003. Habitat characteristics of polar bear terrestrial maternal den sites in northern Alaska. Arctic. 56 (1): 55-62.

Prestrud, P. and I. Stirling. 1994. The International Polar Bear Agreement and the current status of polar bear conservation. Aquatic Mammals, 20: 1-12.

Stirling, I. Personal Communication, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton.

Stirling, I. 2002. Polar Bears and Seals in the Eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf: A Synthesis of Population Trends and Ecological Relationships over Three Decades. Arctic. 55, SUPP. 1 : 59–76.

Stirling, I., and M.K. Taylor. 1999. Update COSEWIC status report on the polar bear Ursus maritimus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa.

Stirling, I., Andriashek, D. and W. Calvert. 1993. Habitat preferences of polar bears in the Western Canadian Arctic in late winter and spring. Polar Record, 29: 13-24.

Stirling, I. and D. Andriashek. 1992. Terrestrial denning of polar bears in the eastern Beaufort Sea area. Arctic, 45: 363-366.

Stirling, I. 1988. Attraction of polar bears Ursus maritimus to offshore drilling sites in the eastern Beaufort Sea. Polar Rec. 24: 1-8.

Stirling, I. and C. Parkinson. 2006. Possible Effects of Climate Warming on Selected Populations of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic. Vol. 59, no. 3, pp.261–275.