Russia, U.S. Agree to Protect Polar Bears

WASHINGTON Ч The United States and Russia, concluding several years of negotiations, signed an agreement Monday to increase the protection of polar bears in the arctic region of northeastern Siberia and Alaska.

The agreement for the first time establishes quotas on how many bears can be hunted for subsistence by native tribes in both Siberia and Alaska.

Bear management decisions will be made by new commissions in Russia and the United States.

It also puts polar bear denning areas off limits and prohibits all commercial hunting and the killing of female bears with cubs, bears younger than one year, and the use of aircraft, traps or snares to hunt bears.

There are an estimated 3,000 polar bears in the Chukotka region of northeastern Siberia and in Alaska, said David Cline of the World Wildlife Fund, who participated in the negotiations that led to the agreement.

The bears range widely across northeastern Siberia, on the ice and islands of the Chukchi and Bearing seas and in the arctic region of Alaska.

The pact was signed Monday at a State Department ceremony by Yury Ushakov, Russia's ambassador to the United States, and David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.

While the Chukotka and Alaska polar bears are growing in numbers, many conservationists fear they may one day begin to decline under the threat of poachers and commercial hunting if bilateral agreement on management plans are not established by both Russia and the United States.

Bear hides are worth thousands of dollars.

There also has been an illegal trade of bear gallbladders, which are viewed as having medicinal value, particularly in parts of Asia.

"This agreement is extremely important for this particular bear population," Cline said.

"It's better to have legalized [subsistence] hunts rather than widespread poaching."

He noted, for example, that it assures bears are protected in what has become known as "the polar bear nursery" Ч a Russian island straddling the Siberian and Chukchi seas about 100 kilometers north of the Siberian mainland.

"Eighty-five percent of female polar bears in this population actually go there to build their maternity caves," said Cline, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and has worked on conservation programs there for three decades.

The new U.S-Russia agreement for the first time establishes a bear management and conservation plan that includes participation of native tribes in both Alaska and Russia on the management commissions, he said.