Polar Bear

Conservation & Research

First International Scientific Meeting on the Polar Bear, 1965

Growing public concern about polar bear hunting and other human activities in the Arctic, such as oil exploration, led to the First International Scientific Meeting on the Polar Bear in 1965. Attending were representatives from all five polar bear countries: Canada, Greenland (territory of Denmark), Norway, the United States, and the (former) Soviet Union. The meeting set the stage for additional international conferences and research efforts, which eventually led to an international agreement on polar bear conservation.

The International Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat, 1973

  • This agreement states that the five polar bear nations (Canada, Greenland, Norway, the United States, and the former Soviet Union) shall protect polar bear habitat, especially denning areas, feeding areas, and migratory routes; ban hunting of bears from aircraft and large motorized boats; conduct and coordinate management and research efforts; and exchange research results and data.
  • The agreement allows the taking of polar bears for scientific purposes, for preventing serious disturbances in the management of other resources, for use by local people using traditional methods and exercising traditional rights, and for protection of life and property.
  • Each nation has voluntarily established its own regulations and conservation practices using the knowledge gained from the international community as a whole.

United States Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972

  • Polar bears are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
  • The primary objective of the MMPA is to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem and to obtain and maintain an optimum sustainable population of marine mammals.
  • The MMPA prohibits taking and importing marine mammals unless a permit is issued for the purposes of public display, native subsistence, scientific research, or sustaining a depleted species. MMPA revisions in 1994 allow U.S. citizens to import polar bear "trophies" acquired in Canadian hunts. Polar bears in Alaska can be hunted only by Alaskan natives.

The Endangered Species Act, 1973 (ESA)

  • The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is administered by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey). It seeks to stop the extinction of wild animals and plants in the United States, other nations, and at sea.
  • As of 2008, polar bears are listed as "threatened" on the U.S. Endangered Species List, mainly from the loss of important sea ice habitat.


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

In 1975, the polar bear was placed on CITES Appendix II. Appendix II includes species identified as threatened, or likely to become endangered if trade isn't regulated. International trade of polar bears, or their parts, is permitted with proper documentation issued by the government of the exporting country.

IUCN/The World Conservation Union

  • IUCN/The World Conservation Union is a worldwide conservation organization. This organization links together government agencies, non-government agencies, and independent states to encourage a worldwide approach to conservation.
  • The Polar Bear Specialist group works under the guidance of IUCN/The World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission. This group helps to coordinate and identify the management and research efforts of the five polar bear nations ( Canada, Greenland, Norway, the United States, and the former Soviet Union).
  • The polar bear is listed as "Vulnerable" by IUCN/The World Conservation Union. This means the species is likely to move into the endangered category if conservation efforts are not sustained or effective.

Polar Bears International

Polar Bears International is an organization dedicated to the conservation of polar bears and their habitat. In an effort to raise awareness of the challenges polar bears face in their environment, Polar Bears International designated 2008 as the Year of the Polar Bear.



  • Scientists use radio collars to track the movements of polar bears.
    • Once a polar bear is fitted with a radio collar, the collar sends signals to a receiving station via satellite. Scientists can enter the data into a computer program that plots the polar bear's path.
    • Only female polar bears can be tracked using radio collars. Male polar bears have necks wider than their heads, and the collars simply fall off.
  • The movements of polar bears can also be studied by following their tracks in the snow, usually by aircraft.
  • Other behaviors are recorded by observing polar bears directly, or finding evidence of polar bears, such as a partially eaten seal.
  • Most polar bear research is conducted in the spring or summer when weather conditions are more favorable to humans.


Zoological Parks

  • Having polar bears at zoological parks provides the opportunity for the public to learn about these animals and how human activities may impact their survival.
  • In the protected environment of a zoological park, scientists can examine aspects of polar bear biology that are difficult to study in the wild. Areas of study include polar bear reproduction, birth and care of young, physiology, and communication.
    • Polar Bear Reproductive Research: SeaWorld and other AZA-accredited institutions work cooperatively to ensure that the species they care for are managed in a way that assures appropriate population sizes, genetic diversity, and sustainability.
    • SeaWorld has and will continue to study polar bear hormone levels to provide a better understanding of bear breeding.
    • In 2013 and 2014 SeaWorld San Diego’s female polar bears traveled to the Pittsburgh Zoo in attempts to breed with the male polar bear that lives there.
    • The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center has attempted artificial insemination with female bears. AI with polar bears is relatively new compared to the work that has been done with cetaceans, and still requires some development.
    • While to date the bears have not successfully conceived, continuous reproductive research with SeaWorld’s female polar bears provides a better understanding of bear breeding which helps learn more about how to conserve wild polar bears.
  • Scientists from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI) have participated in a study on polar bear hearing to gain insight into how polar bears sense their world. Researchers from HSWRI collaborated with San Diego Zoo Conservation Research on this study in which they tested the hearing of polar bears from SeaWorld San Diego and the San Diego Zoo. Four adult female bears and one adult male bear were tested during the study. The project was funded by Polar Bears International.
    • The study generated a u-shaped curve of each bear's hearing frequency (roughly related to pitch) range. This is the first time a polar bear's, or any other large carnivore's, hearing has been tested. The study indicated that polar bears have almost two times the hearing range of an adult human, but less than that of a dog or cat, which have three to four times our range. They probably also hear low pitched sounds better than other carnivores, but these are difficult to study outside a specialized test chamber.
    • The polar bear hearing study aims to address what will happen as humans increasingly come into contact with polar bears as the bears shift their distribution. As sea ice habitat decreases, certain polar bear populations in the Arctic appear to be declining, and polar bears are increasingly shifting their distribution from sea ice to land. This leads to an escalation in encounters with humans. It's important to understand what noises bears can detect in order to come up with mitigation tools to help the bears.
    • Further field studies may be possible with acoustic monitors placed on radio or satellite tagged polar bears, to gather sound data in the wild. One example of a mitigation tool, based on the study, is the potential, near human settlements, to reduce noises that attract polar bears or project sounds that warn them away. In denning areas, impact on female bears could be minimized by reducing noises that disturb the bears, but permitting other types of noise and allowing important industrial activities to proceed. This kind of win-win scenario may give the bears their best chance for survival.


What You Can Do to Help Polar Bears

  • The largest threat to polar bears is the decrease in sea ice due to the changing climate.
    • We all have a responsibility to reduce our energy use now to protect sea ice habitat for polar bears and other arctic wildlife. Although most of us live far from the Arctic, our energy use impacts the vital arctic ecosystem that supports polar bears and other arctic wildlife.
    • As top predators, polar bears prowl sea ice in search of seals for food. Yet, in much of their range this key sea ice habitat is disappearing. As we burn fossil fuels for coal, oil, or gas for energy usage, more carbon dioxide (CO2) than normal is released into Earth's atmosphere. Instead of heat escaping from the atmosphere, this build-up of CO2 traps heat like a blanket surrounding the Earth. This leads to an overall warming of the air temperature resulting in other changes including warming oceans and sea ice loss. 
    • Without access to sea ice, polar bears have difficulty finding enough food, particularly pregnant females that need to build up their fat stores to live off of while birthing and nursing cubs.
  • How does SeaWorld help polar bears?
    • SeaWorld San Diego is an Arctic Ambassador Center on behalf of Polar Bears International (PBI). PBI's network of Arctic Ambassador Centers deliver a powerful message: “Together we can save polar bears and the Arctic, but we must act soon.”
    • These centers:
      • Educate the public about climate change and how we each can help.
      • Provide leadership for carbon emission reductions in their communities.
      • Include leading zoos, museums, science centers, and aquariums.
    • SeaWorld has taken many steps to reduce its energy footprint including the installation of energy efficient lighting and appliances throughout the park.
  • How can you help?
    • We can reduce our energy use now to protect and preserve the sea ice habitat for polar bears and for future generations by reducing the amount that we drive.
      • One way is by joining or setting up a “bike to work” or “bike to school” program in your community.
      • Check for and participate in a “no idling” program in your local community.
      • Together we can ensure vital sea ice habitat remains for polar bears and for other ice-dependent wildlife.