MOSCOW (Reuters) - A new Russia-U.S. treaty could allow hunters in Russia to kill polar bears, a species already under threat from global warming, WWF said on Monday.
Russian and U.S. scientists and authorities drew up the treaty to improve cooperation and standardize treatment of polar bears living across the Bering Strait — which stretches from Russia’s Chukotka region to Alaska in the United States.
But it may force Russia to reintroduce polar bear hunting, 50 years after the Soviet Union banned it, to match legislation in Alaska, said Viktor Nikiforov, WWF Russia’s polar bear expert.
“It’s not a treaty about hunting, it’s about cooperation and management but on the negative side it is a potential gate for the reintroduction of hunting into Russia,” he said of the treaty enforced on Sunday but drawn up seven years ago when global warming was less topical.
“We have to be worried about that.”
Global warming threatens to kill off the polar bear by melting the ice they use to hunt seals and earlier this month a U.S. Geological Survey estimated two thirds of the 20,000 to 25,000 population could die by 2050.
In Alaska the Inuit people are allowed to hunt polar bears for non-commercial purposes — for fur and meat. Now the new treaty calls for people in both areas to be treated equally.
And there is some pressure from grassroots groups in Chukotka to reintroduce polar bear hunting and match the Alaskan quota of about 25 polar bear kills a year, Nikiforov said, estimating there to be around 2,000 living around the Bering Strait — which freezes into an ice bridge in the winter.
“If the scientific community agree to continue hunting on the Alaskan side then the treaty says the quota has to be split 50-50,” he said.
Ten years ago, Nikiforov said, the polar bear population living around the Bering Strait could have been twice as high at nearly 5,000 but global warming is melting the Arctic, destroying their hunting ground and lengthening swims which kills some from exhaustion.
“The worldwide polar bear population is under great stress,” Nikiforov said.
Norway has banned polar bear hunting but indigenous people in Canada and Greenland still hunt them.