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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Poachers Imperiling Polar Bears

NEW YORK -- Polar bears that traverse the floating ice between the Russian Arctic and Alaska are being shot in rising numbers by poachers on Russian shores, according to a new report by federal wildlife biologists in the United States, and the killing could greatly diminish the bear population if it is not slowed.

The findings were released as the United States and Russia consider ratifying a treaty they signed in 2000 to protect the shared population of about 4,000 bears. The treaty would allow limited hunting by native populations but would clamp down on poaching under a management plan developed by scientists and representatives of native communities.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday to consider the treaty. Last summer, President George W. Bush urged the Senate to approve the treaty, which requires a two-thirds majority.

Polar bears roam most of the Arctic Ocean's sea ice and fringing shores, but form distinct groups that rarely mix. The population spanning the Bering Strait, the narrow gap between North America and Eurasia, has individuals that are considerably larger than those elsewhere in the far north, biologists say.

In the 1960s, hunting in Alaska sharply cut the polar bear population until laws were enacted that curbed the killing. The new study, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the situation in Russia today is at least as serious. It estimates that Russians are taking 200 to 400 bears a year and says that if that level of hunting persists, the population could be cut in half by 2020.

"We do think these harvest rates could cause a depletion or severe reduction in the population,'' said Scott Schliebe, the polar bear project leader in the Anchorage office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We don't expect to see a lot of immigration to fill that void.''

The Soviet Union outlawed polar bear hunting in 1956, but since the fall of communism, illegal shooting has risen steadily, experts say.

Initially the bears were being killed on the Russian coast mainly for their meat, but now a significant cash trade, including sales over the Internet, has sprung up in Russia for the pelts -- often in batches -- and organs, like the gall bladder, valued as medicinal products in Asia.

Among those calling for rapid enactment of the treaty are groups representing native communities, mainly Eskimos, who have traditionally hunted polar bears and want to be able to maintain a limited legal harvest by curtailing poaching.

A spokeswoman for the State Department said Monday that the Bush administration "is anxious to get this treaty into force because we think it will help the Russians clamp down.''