Species Profile

Polar Bear

Scientific Name: Ursus maritimus
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
Range: Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Arctic Ocean
Last COSEWIC Assessment: April 2008
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern


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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Other Protection or Status | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Polar Bear

Polar Bear Photo 1
Polar Bear Photo 2

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Description

The Polar Bear is the largest terrestrial carnivore in the world. Its coloration provides excellent camouflage for hunting in landscapes characterized by ice and snow. Although the fur is white just after the moult, it may appear yellow or off-white during summer and often reflects the colours of the sky and snow. The species is adapted to life in the Arctic. Its thick layer of fat and its dense, water-repellent fur provide protection from the cold. Unlike the paws of other bear species, the pads of the paws of Polar Bears are entirely furred; this insulates the feet and provides improved traction on ice and snow. With an elongated body and huge forepaws that are useful for paddling in water, this species is superbly adapted for swimming. The bears use their powerful, sharp-clawed paws to dig through and climb on snow and ice, to collapse the roofs of seal lairs and to dispatch seals, their main prey. The species has a long, narrow head and snout and small ears. This large mammal is the largest species in the bear family. Male bears can weigh up to 800 kg and reach 2.8 m in length from nose to tail; females are smaller, usually not exceeding 400 kg and 2.5 m.

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Distribution and Population

The Polar Bear is an Arctic species with a circumpolar distribution; it is found in the United States (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. In Canada, the species is found in ice-covered regions from Yukon and the Bering Sea in the west to Newfoundland and Labrador in the east and from northern Ellesmere Island south to James Bay. The bears are found mainly in the coastal regions of the Arctic Ocean and in the channels between the islands. The Canadian population, which makes up about two-thirds of the global population, is distributed among 13 management units. The length and frequency of seasonal movements undertaken by bears within management units vary according to the size of the geographic area occupied, the annual pattern of freezing and break-up of the sea ice, and the availability of features such as land masses, multi-year ice, and polynyas (areas of open water surrounded by sea ice). The continued existence of Polar Bear populations is dependent on the presence of seasonal sea ice. An ongoing decline in seasonal availability of sea ice would likely lead to a contraction in parts of the species’ range. As of 2014, the Canadian population of Polar Bears was estimated to be approximately 16,000 individuals. Data on survival and reproduction rates suggest that two of the thirteen management units (Southern Beaufort Sea and Baffin Bay, which combined account for 20.2% of the total Canadian population) are likely declining at the present time. Two (Foxe Basin and Southern Hudson Bay) other management units (representing 21.7% of the total population) are considered stable, four (Gulf of Boothia, Northern Beaufort Sea, Viscount Melville and Western Hudson Bay) management units (representing 25.1% of the total population) are likely stable while two others (Davis Strait and M’Clintock Channel) are likely increasing (representing 15% of the total population). Trends cannot currently be reported for the three (Kane Basin, Lancaster Sound and Norwegian Bay) remaining management units (which account for approximately 18% of the total population) owing to a lack of data. Canada expects to have up-to-date population estimates for all 13 management units by 2018.

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Habitat

The Polar Bear frequents the southern edge of the multi-year pack ice of the Arctic Ocean (the ice-covered waters surrounding the North Pole). It is commonly found in coastal areas and in the channels between the islands and archipelagos of the Arctic. The type and extent of the sea ice are the main factors that determine the quality of Polar Bear habitat. Because the sea ice provides access to the bears’ main prey species, the distribution of the bears in most areas follows the seasonal extent of the sea ice. The species’ habitat is closely associated with that of its preferred prey, the ringed seal, which lives exclusively in association with sea ice for at least part of the year. Polar Bear habitat varies with the season. In regions where much of the pack ice melts in the middle of summer or late summer, all the bears are forced onshore for two to four months, during which they must rely entirely on their fat reserves. The bears return to the sea ice in the fall when freeze-up occurs. Pregnant females excavate maternity dens in which to give birth, generally on land near the coast. Dens are dug in snowdrifts or, in areas farther south, in frozen earth or peat. They are often located near areas where there are high densities of seals in the spring. In the Beaufort Sea (western part of the Canadian Arctic) maternity dens are sometimes observed on drifting pack ice. During the winter, the pregnant females remain sheltered in their dens, whereas the other bears are active on the pack ice. These animals, which are well adapted to the Arctic, also use shelter dens during very harsh weather. Such dens can be found 200 km or more offshore. By altering the extent of the sea ice and the distribution of the seals that reproduce on the sea ice, climate warming will definitely have an impact on the distribution of Polar Bears.

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Biology

Females reach reproductive maturity at about 4 to 6 years of age and typically have litters of one or two cubs about every three years. The species’ very low reproductive rate means that populations cannot re-establish themselves quickly following a decline. Most males begin to breed at about 8 to 10 years of age. Few Polar Bears live longer than 25 years. Mating takes place in late April or early May, but implantation of the fertilized egg does not occur until October. Pregnant females enter maternity dens in late October and the young are born between November and early January. At birth, cubs weigh less than 1 kg and are covered in very fine hair. They are nursed inside the den until some time between the end of February and the middle of April, when they venture out on the sea ice with their mother. By this time, the cubs weigh 10 to 12 kg. Pregnant females spend a large part of the winter in their dens without feeding, and they cannot end their fast until their young are old enough to be moved from the den. As a result, these females may not eat for up to eight months but still have to meet the energetic demands of gestation and lactation. The Polar Bear is the most carnivorous of the bears. It generally does not attack humans, except to protect its young or when starving. It feeds primarily on ringed seals but may also eat bearded seals, harp seals, hooded seals, harbour seals and sometimes young walruses, belugas and narwhals. During the summer, bears that remain on land live mainly on their fat reserves and conserve their energy by remaining inactive most of the time. They occasionally eat grass and berries. The Polar Bear has no natural predators. However, as an apex predator (i.e., the predator at the top of the food chain), the Polar Bear feeds on prey species that may have accumulated chemicals in their tissues. The bears themselves may build up environmental contaminants in their tissues that can affect their survival and reproduction. Compared to other terrestrial mammals, Polar Bears travel over exceedingly large areas. They readily adapt their movements to environmental conditions and the availability of prey species, and they can be sensitive to human activity. Nevertheless, these bears are known to use non-natural sources of food, such as garbage, and they may become habituated to the presence of humans, despite attempts to scare them away, if food rewards can still be obtained.

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Threats

The following is a list of current threats facing the Polar Bear. It is recognized that the relative impact of these threats on Polar Bears may change, and that new threats may be identified in the future. Climate change: Environmental change is the most critical long-term threat to Polar Bears and their habitat. Projected warming over much of their range and the associated reductions in the extent and thickness of multi-year sea ice, and the duration and thickness of annual sea ice, will have both direct and indirect effects on Polar Bears. Direct effects include change of habitat (i.e. extent and composition of sea ice), while indirect effects include ecosystem level changes in availability in prey species (such as seal), separation from terrestrial denning areas and refugia, contaminant transfer, and change in level of human activities. Climate change is likely to influence all of the threats listed below for the Canadian population and it should therefore be treated as the ultimate limiting factor for the species. The observed declines in the Western Hudson Bay and Southern Beaufort Sea management units can largely be attributed to climate change. If the climate continues to evolve as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all Polar Bear populations will eventually be affected. Changes in sea ice are not expected to affect Polar Bears in all portions of their range at the same time, or in the same ways. Polar Bears in some portions of their range may see transient but significant benefit from a milder climate. For example, there is expected to be increased access to prey species due to decreased multi-year ice. Also, the northern sections of the Canadian arctic and north-western Greenland may provide long term habitat. Harvest in excess of established quotas: A system of sustainable harvest management has been in place in Canada since the 1970s. Harvest quotas are established by the governments of the jurisdictions together with wildlife management boards established under Land Claims Agreements. Quotas are established for the purpose of long-term conservation of Polar Bears. Canadian quotas include all human caused mortalities: subsistence harvest, non-resident hunting, known illegal take, and take in defence of life and property. Reporting of all take to jurisdictional conservation officers is required. There is little evidence of illegal or undocumented harvest in Canada. In cases where there are concerns regarding the sustainability of harvest levels, coordinated management actions by jurisdictions and their partners, including the adjustment of Total Allowable Harvest levels (or equivalent) for each management unit, should reduce or remove the threat of unsustainable harvest. Canada currently invests approximately $1.7M/year into monitoring its polar bear population to ensure that quota determinations are based on recent data. Contaminants: As a top predator, Polar Bears are exposed to environmental contaminants including both organic (e.g., organochlorines and brominated flame retardants) and inorganic (e.g., mercury) substances that have effects at the individual, and possibly, at the population level. Additional contaminants from marine spills could seriously impact local populations. Emerging contaminants are also a concern, and it is recognized that environmental change may alter contaminant pathways. For example, transport and delivery of contaminants to Arctic ecosystems are likely to be enhanced as contaminants that are currently sequestered in glaciers and permafrost are released. Although the effects of pollutants on Polar Bears are only partially understood, recent studies suggest that contaminants are likely to have physiological effects, including altered hormone levels, as well as immune system and reproductive effects. Resource industry activities: Exploration and development for resource extraction (e.g., metals, minerals, oil and gas) has the potential for direct mortality and disturbance of bears, including habitat alteration and disturbance of bears in maternity dens. Environmental change will likely provide greater industrial access to resources and, together with an increase in industrial activities, the frequency of human-bear conflicts may increase. Shipping: Disturbance and the potential for shipping accidents (e.g., spills) associated with increasing levels of shipping activity in the Arctic, including community re-supply, industrial shipping and tourism, present increasing threats to Polar Bears. Moreover, environmental change will likely increase the duration of shipping seasons and open up additional, previously unnavigable, routes. Human-bear conflicts: Increased interaction between humans and Polar Bears is already occurring in northern communities; further human-bear conflicts are likely to arise in the future as tourism and other anthropogenic activities increase, and sea ice continues to change. Human-bear conflicts may result in the destruction of property, danger to people and danger to bears due to human-caused harassment, or mortality in defense of life or property.

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Protection

Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Within Canada, management of Polar Bears falls under the authority of the following: the federal government, four provinces (Manitoba, Ontario, Québec, and Newfoundland and Labrador), three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) and the wildlife management boards established as part of the settlement of land claims. Hunting is managed largely through quotas and in keeping with the rights of Aboriginal peoples. Since 1976, management has been coordinated internationally under the Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears, which was signed by the federal government on behalf of all the provinces and territories of Canada in 1973, as well as by the four other countries in which Polar Bears are found (Greenland, Norway, the United States, and Russia). This agreement prohibits unregulated sport hunting of Polar Bears and obliges each signatory to conduct research on the conservation and management of the species and to convey the findings to the other member nations. The Polar Bear Range States meet on a biennial basis, Canada hosted the 2011 meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut. The portions of the Polar Bear’s terrestrial habitat that are in Canada’s national parks, in Ontario’s provincial parks or in national wildlife areas (NWAs) are protected, but these protected areas encompass only about 2.9% of the area occupied by the species in Canada. The majority of Polar Bear habitat is marine, for which there are few federal, provincial, or territorial protected areas within the Polar Bear’s range. In Manitoba, Polar Bears have been protected under the Endangered Species Act as of 2008, and harvesting of bears is not permitted. The Threatened designation also removes the right to kill the bears under Aboriginal treaty rights. Polar Bears may be killed only in defence of life or property within the province of Manitoba. In Ontario, the Polar Bear has been protected as a threatened species under the province’s Endangered Species Act, 2007 since 2009 and a Recovery Strategy has been finalized. Polar Bears are also protected under Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997, and there is no hunting or trapping season. However, First Nations hunters who are Treaty 9 members residing along the Hudson Bay and James Bay coast can harvest Polar Bears. There is a permissible kill of no more than 30 bears per year that is controlled by restricting the annual sale of hides under a trapper’s licence to those hides with an official seal attached by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. In recent years, however, the Ontario coastal First Nations have worked collaboratively with hunters in Nunavut and Nunavik as well as with provincial, territorial and federal governments to limit their harvest to levels below the 30 they are permitted in consideration of sustainability of the collective take from the Southern Hudson Bay management unit. In Québec, the Polar Bear has been listed as Vulnérable under the Loi sur les Espèces Menacées ou Vulnérable since 2009. The James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement (1975) restricts the taking of Polar Bears to Aboriginal peoples and ensures that they have exclusive access to a Guaranteed Harvest Level (GHL) of 62 bears per year, subject to the principles of conservation. Like the First Nations peoples of Ontario, hunters in Nunavik have recently agreed to limit their harvest levels from Southern Hudson Bay in consideration of sustainability. A management system for Polar Bears in Québec is being developed by the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board in collaboration with relevant parties. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Polar Bear has been listed as Vulnerable under the Endangered Species Act since 2002. In this province, the provincial Wildlife Act and regulations and the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement provides the legislative framework for polar bear management. Within the Labrador Inuit Settlement Area the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-management Board (TWPCB), in consultation with the Nunatsiavut Government, establishes, modifies and eliminates the allowable harvest of polar bears, with Labrador Inuit having exclusive rights to harvest Polar Bears. In the Northwest Territories, the Polar Bear was listed as a species of Special Concern in 2014 and a management plan is currently in development. In Nunavut and the Yukon the Polar Bear is not listed, but comprehensive and responsive management systems are in place.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Other Protection or Status

The Polar Bear is also listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates international trade in species that are or may become threatened by commercial trade.

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

18 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

COSEWIC Assessments

  • COSEWIC Assessment - Polar Bear (2002)

    The polar bear was designated by COSEWIC as Not at Risk in 1986; it was uplisted to Vulnerable in 1991 on the basis of a report that was completed in 1998. This is the second update status report on the species.
  • COSEWIC Assessment - Polar Bear (2008)

    Designated Not at Risk in April 1986. Status re–examined and designated Special Concern in April 1991. Status re–examined and confirmed in April 1999, November 2002, and April 2008.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Polar Bear (2008)

    A response statement is a communications document that identifies how the Minister of the Environment intends to respond to the assessment of a wildlife species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The document provides a start to the listing process for those species identified as being at risk, and provides timelines for action to the extent possible.
  • Response Statements - Polar Bear (2004)

    A response statement is a communications document that identifies how the Minister of the Environment intends to respond to the assessment of a wildlife species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The document provides a start to the listing and recovery process for those species identified as being at risk, and provides timelines for action to the extent possible.

Management Plans

  • Polar Bear SARA Management Plan Progress Report (as of September 15, 2016) (2016)

    The Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was listed as a species of Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2011. A Special Concern designation is used for species that may become threatened or endangered as a result of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessment Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2011)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, hereby acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of the assessment done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.
  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (2004)

    This Order acknowledges receipt by the Governor in Council of the assessments of the status of wildlife species done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (2011)

    This Order, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, adds the Polar Bear species to Schedule 1 of SARA as a species of special concern. Under SARA, the listing of a species as special concern in Schedule 1 requires the preparation of a management plan to prevent listed species from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act (2005)

    Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), is amended by Order of the Governor in Council (GIC), on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, by the addition of 73 species. This Order is based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and follows consultations with provincial and territorial governments, Aboriginal peoples, stakeholders and the public, and analysis of costs and benefits to Canadians.
  • Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act (2005)

    The Minister of the Environment is recommending, pursuant to section 27 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), that 43 species be added to Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This recommendation is based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and on consultations with governments, Aboriginal peoples, wildlife management boards, stakeholders and the Canadian public.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2003 (2003)

    May 2003 Annual Report to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2007 - 2008 (2008)

    2008 Annual Report to the The Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species Under the Species At Risk Act: March 2004 (2004)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list.
  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: Terrestrial Species (2009)

    As part of its strategy for protecting wildlife species at risk, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Please submit your comments by March 20, 2009 for species undergoing normal consultations and by March 19, 2010 for species undergoing extended consultations.

Related Information

  • Summary of the National Roundtable on Polar Bears (2009)

    The National Roundtable on Polar Bears was held on January 16, 2009 in Winnipeg Manitoba. Participants of the Roundtable included territories and provinces, the wildlife management boards, the Inuit, First Nations, Aboriginal groups, scientists and others who have a management or conservation role to protect Canada's approximately 15,500 polar bears. The purpose of the Polar Bear Roundtable was to increase awareness of the many conservation actions underway by various parties, to hear views regarding priority areas for action from a broad cross-section of knowledgeable opinion leaders and to set the scene for consultations related to listing the polar bear under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Environment and Climate Change Canada's Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan (2016)

    Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan identifies the species for which recovery documents will be posted each fiscal year starting in 2014-2015. Posting this three year plan on the Species at Risk Public Registry is intended to provide transparency to partners, stakeholders, and the public about Environment and Climate Change Canada’s plan to develop and post these proposed recovery strategies and management plans. However, both the number of documents and the particular species that are posted in a given year may change slightly due to a variety of circumstances. Last update March 31, 2017