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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Plan to Save Polar Bears by Hunting Them

Itar-TassA polar bear swimming in the Chukchi Sea north of Chukotka, where a ban on hunting is soon to be partially lifted.
VANKAREM, Chukotka -- Here on the frozen edge of the country's Arctic expanse, where a changing climate has brought polar bears into greater contact with people, the government has embraced a counterintuitive method of preserving the creatures: hunting them, legally.

For the first time since the Soviet Union banned the practice more than five decades ago, the government is preparing to allow hunters here to kill the bears. The animals are descending with greater regularity on coastal villages in this part of the Far North as a result of shrinking sea ice generally attributed to a warming planet.

"The normal life space for the polar bears is shrinking," Anatoly Kochnev, a biologist with the Pacific Scientific Research and Fisheries Center here in the Chukotka region, said in an interview.

"They come in search of food on the shore, and the main sources of food are where people live."

Even as many warn that the world's polar bears are threatened, with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush proposing to include them on the U.S. listing of threatened species, scientists, environmentalists and native villagers here express hope that a legal hunt could rein in rampant poaching.

If hunters are allowed to take at least some bears legally, the reasoning goes, they might be less tempted to break the law for the bear's meat, consumed locally as an illicit delicacy, and for the thousands of dollars pelts can fetch.

"It is like the Russian saying," said Sergei Nomkymyn, a hunter in this village 130 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, who favors a resumption of legal hunting that most here remember only from their elders' tales. "The wolves would not be hungry, and the sheep would remain intact."

Still, it remains to be seen whether the hunt can really reduce the poaching in a country with notorious corruption and lax enforcement of its own environmental rules.

The twin threats facing Russia's polar bears -- a warming climate and poaching -- have put Vankarem and other villages along the coast of the country's remote northeastern edge at the center of efforts to ensure the creatures' survival.

The shrinking sea ice has hurt by taking the bears farther from their natural sources of food. And although poaching has been a longtime problem in an area where bear hunting was once a way of life, the loss of natural habitat has made illegal hunting easier.

"When they are on the shore, they are in danger of being killed," Kochnev said.

Although the number of bears killed illegally here remains unclear, given the clandestine nature of poaching, the government estimates that as many as 100 are killed each year.

Kochnev said the number could be twice as high, an unsustainable blow to a regional population that roams from the northwestern coasts of Alaska to the East Siberian Sea and has shrunk to an estimated 2,000. (The worldwide population of polar bears is 20,000 to 25,000.)

The ban in Russia, which was imposed in 1956 after the population of bears experienced a sharp decline, will be lifted only partially to allow subsistence hunting by villagers in Chukotka, an impoverished, sparsely populated region across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

The hunt, officials here and in Moscow said, could resume as soon as this year or next, once a census is carried out and an annual quota that would not threaten the bears is set. In Alaska, the annual quota allowed by U.S. law has averaged roughly 40 per year.

Polar bears live mostly on sea ice, which they use as a platform for hunting seals, their main prey. With the floating Arctic ice cap shrinking in the summer months to its smallest size in at least a century, the bears have had to swim longer distances to reach the seals, which live closer to land.

Scientists say bears that come ashore in search of other food also sometimes are getting trapped there if the ice retreats farther offshore than before.

The result has been more contact with humans as the bears of the Chukchi Sea migrate along the region's northern coast until the winter ice freezes again. Last year that did not occur until early December.

One attraction for the bears has been an increase in the number of walruses lingering onshore.

A habitat for walruses, known as a haul out, is located on a rocky spit at the edge of the village. Where once a few thousand walruses gathered in the summer and fall, there are now tens of thousands, an increase that scientists also attribute to the reduction of the sea ice where walruses typically gather.

The carcasses of those that die naturally on the shore attract hungry bears. Last year, for the first time, the "bear patrol," a group of hunters in Vankarem that monitors the arrival of the bears, collected 80 of the carcasses and hauled them by tractor to an abandoned Soviet-era military post about eight kilometers outside of Vankarem. Over a two-week period in November and December, the patrol counted 96 bears that fed at the collection spot.

"In the autumn, there were as many polar bears as dogs," said Fyodor Tymityagin, a hunter here who is part of the patrol as he stood recently on a hummock of ice on the Chukchi Sea, scanning the horizon for signs of bears.

Sergei Kavry, the patrol's 35-year-old leader, said the oversight protected the villagers from attacks and the bears from poaching. After the two weeks, the sea froze and the bears, well-nourished, headed north onto the ice.

"Vankarem was encircled by bears," he said, "but by happy bears."

Under the treaty with the United States and approved by the Senate last December, a joint commission, advised by scientists from both countries, would oversee any legal hunt and establish quotas for native villagers on both sides of the Bering Strait.

Vladimir Mikhailov, an ethnic Russian who has lived in Vankarem for 20 years, said he did not think the legal hunt would stop illegal killings. "You cannot place a policeman with every bear or with every hunter," he said after a town hall meeting held here in early April to discuss plans for resuming the official hunt.

There are, in fact, no police in Vankarem, a place so remote that it is a three-day drive by all-terrain track vehicle from the regional capital, Anadyr.

Like many here, Kavry, the bear patrol leader, supports the resumption of a legal hunt, saying it would restore a tradition forced underground after the Soviet ban went into effect.

The polar bear, he and others said, was central to Chukchi culture, a source of legends and, in an inhospitable climate, a source of food.