Polar bears: The current facts | WWF

Polar bears: The current facts

Posted on
10 January 2007
As some recent media reports have mistakenly cited incorrect facts about Canadian and circumarctic polar bears, WWF-Canada provides a brief summary of the most important facts about Canadian polar bears.

In this way we hope that readers will be able to base their thinking, writing and decisions on accurate facts, not distorted information. Much of this information is contained in the recently published 190-page report from the World Conservation Union’s Polar Bear Specialist Group most recent Working Meeting (IUCN 2006).

Basic Ecology of Polar Bears.

Range and numbers.
There are currently 19 populations of polar bears in the Arctic, in Canada, Alaska (USA), Russia, Norway (Svalbard) and Greenland (Denmark). Thirteen of these populations occur either wholly or partially in Canada, ranging from the Ontario shores of Hudson Bay as far north as Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, and from northern Yukon in the west to Labrador in the east. Twelve of these populations occur at least partially in Nunavut. More on the polar bear's sea ice habitat >>

Polar bears often move over huge distances in their annual cycle. Because population estimates are very expensive to obtain in the Arctic, census data are patchy for some polar bear populations. The current overall estimate is of 20-25,000 wild polar bears, with approximately 15,000 (about 2/3) occurring in Canada.

Trends in Canadian polar bear populations.
(extracted from IUCN 2006, Polar Bear Specialist Group Proceedings from 2005 meeting). Much of the data in the IUCN Proceedings were provided by the Government of Nunavut which participated fully in the production of the status report.

Population No. (year of most recent estimate) Status (re. historic levels) Current Trend Estimated risk of decline in next 10 years
S Beaufort Sea (Canada/USA) 1500 (2006) Reduced Declining No estimate
N Beaufort Sea 1200 (1986) Not reduced Stable No estimate
Viscount Melville 215 (1996) Severely reduced Increasing Very low
Lancaster Sound 2541 (1998) Not reduced Stable Higher
McClintock Channel 284 (2000) Severely reduced Increased Very low
Gulf of Boothia 1523 (2000) Not reduced Stable Lower
Foxe Basin 2300 (2004) Not reduced Stable Lower
W Hudson Bay 935 (2004) Reduced Declining Very High
S Hudson Bay 1000 (1988) Not reduced Stable Lower *
Davis Strait (Canada/Greenland) 1650 (2004) Data deficient Data deficient Lower
Baffin Bay (Canada/Greenland) 1546 (2004) Reduced Declining Very high
Norwegian Bay 190 (1998) Not reduced Declining Higher
Kane Basin (Canada/Greenland) 164 (1998) Reduced Declining Very high

* Very recent Ontario Government research shows that polar bears in this population are now experiencing significant declines in body condition since the mid-1980s, which, when combined with satellite data on sea ice reductions, suggests that population declines may follow.1

To summarize the above table:
Of the 13 Canadian polar bear populations, the current trends for the 11 populations not known to be severely reduced from historic levels are:
  • five populations declining,
  • five populations stable and
  • one population is data deficient.
In the next 10 years, five polar bear populations have an estimated high/very high risk of decline, six have a low/very low risk and there is currently no estimate for two populations.


The main threats to the continued survival of polar bear populations are:
  • Global warming (especially the melting of sea ice, and changes to marine food supply and availability);
  • Contamination of food supply by toxic chemicals such as persistent organochlorine pollutants (DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, etc.) and heavy metals such as mercury;
  • Marine oil pollution and disturbance associated with increased industrial and shipping activities in arctic waters;
  • Disturbance to key habitats from industrial explorations and developments (e.g., denning concentrations in oil-gas rich areas); and
  • Over-hunting.
Other, currently less significant factors are:
  • Intraspecific predation (i.e., cannibalism, often seen in bear species)
  • Increased conflicts with humans along Arctic coastlines (human safety issues, often requiring removal of polar bears).
  • Scientific research
  • Tourism
1 Obbard, M.E. 2006. Temporal trends in the Body Condition of Southern Hudson Bay Polar Bears. Climate Change Research Information Note Number 3. Government of Ontario, Applied Research and Development Branch. Pp. 8. (http://sit/mnr/gov.on.ca)