Polar bears suffer from cooling of Russia-NATO relations

A seal hunting ban may have helped boost polar bear populations. [tableatny/Flickr]

A mission to assess the polar bear population in the Barents Sea has been partially cancelled, after Russia refused Norwegian scientists access to its territory. EURACTIV France reports

Deteriorating relations between Russia and NATO could put the protection of the fragile environment of the Arctic Circle, and the survival of the regions polar bears, at risk.

According to Barents Observer, a joint mission between Norway and Russia to count the number of polar bears will not take place this year. The polar bear population in the Barents Sea is concentrated mainly on the Norwegian island of Svalbard and the Franz Joseph Land, a Russian territory that Moscow has now closed to Norwegian scientists.

The region’s most recent polar bear count took place in 2004. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had signed an agreement with Moscow last winter to share responsibility for a new count. A member of Norway’s climate and environment ministry, quoted in the Barents Observer in February this year, said, “The ice sheet on the Barents Sea has reduced hugely since 2004, which has greatly limited the area where polar bears can live.” The Norwegian Polar Institute has been forced to limit its count to Norwegian territory.

A mysterious population

During the last count, researchers estimated the number of bears in the area at between 1,850 and 3,400. Often used as a symbol of climate change, this large mammal is threatened by the retreat of Arctic sea ice, one of its most important hunting grounds. But without reliable data, the polar bear population remains a mystery.

The hunting ban on seals in certain regions has increased the amount of food available to polar bears, and some observers say their population is increasing as a result.

According to the American journal Ecological Applications, the number of polar bears living in Canada, around the Beaufort Sea, fell from 1,500 in 2001 to 900 in 2010. But the state of 18 other groups of polar bears in the Arctic, in territories belonging to six different countries, is a mystery. The practical difficulties of accessing the habitats means these populations are not subjected to any specific studies. 

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