Canada, Greenland to jointly manage polar bears

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada and Greenland agreed on Friday to create a joint commission to recommend how many of the polar bears shared between the two countries can be hunted each year.

Polar bears look on at the St. Felicien Wildlife Zoo in St. Felicien, March 5, 2009. According to Environment Canada, Canada is home to approximately 15,000 of the estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears worldwide. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Canada, along with the government of its vast Arctic territory of Nunavut and Greenland -- which has home rule under Denmark -- will form a panel to advise on how many of the up to 2,700 bears that wander between the two nations can be sustainably culled by native and trophy hunters.

Representatives from Canadian Inuit groups will also be included on the commission.

“The purpose of this memorandum of understanding is to deal with the sub-populations (of bears) that we jointly harvest and manage with the government of Greenland,” Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice said on a conference call.

Canada has the world’s largest polar bear population, estimated by the federal government to number 15,500. That number is split into 13 distinct sub-populations containing about two thirds of the global total.

But the animals are under pressure from climate change and hunting. Critics have said current hunting levels in Nunavut and neighboring Greenland are not sustainable.

Canada is considering designating polar bears as a “species of special concern”. The United States has listed its polar bears as a threatened species as melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrinks the bears’ habit.

The agreement will see the Canada and Greenland share hunting and research data for polar bears in the Kane Basin, which has as many as 200 bears, and the up to 2,500 bears that are in the Baffin Bay sub-population.

Craig Stewart, a spokesman with World Wildlife Fund Canada, said polar bears in the region are under hunting pressure and welcomed the pact.

“We think its a positive step forward,” Stewart said. “It mirrors other agreements that are in place, with the United States for instance, to manage shared populations and is focused on what is perhaps the most sensitive population of polar bears in the entire Arctic.”

Editing by Rob Wilson