There's a stock number of questions I get all the time. Usually the first question I get is something about whether I shoot wolves or not. But just as often, after a long discussion about predator control, I'll get asked about Polar Bears, and whether I support their listing.
My answer is, of course, that given my knowledge of Polar Bear biology (admittedly incomplete), it seems prudent to protect Polar Bears. People will then ask me if I support subsistence harvest for Polar Bears. Which, given my knowledge of Polar Bear ecology, I do. `Ah ha!` someone will cry. `You're biased to subsistence! You wouldn't let a bunch of white guys go out and shoot a Polar Bear, but you're happy to let natives do it even when you want to protect a species!`
This is when I get out the clue-by-four and begin beating them with it until they get a clue.
So how can a species need protection, but still be available to harvest? Well, unlike many things in biology, this is actually mostly straight forward.
Let's say you have a Polar Bear.
Yes, yes you are a Polar Bear. Incidentally, if you want my art skills using paint, check out this tutorial.
Okay, let's take that Polar Bear, and put it with all her buddies.
What a wacky bunch! They should have their own prime-time sitcom.
Now, in this system, we have something that is a limiting factor, and something that will become an increasingly large limiting factor - habitat. Particularly, ice habitat. We're going to have a lot less of it. Some Polar Bears are going to have it...
But what about those who won't? Or those who get sub-optimal habitat?
I joke. It's not curtains time for them, but those bears will be much worse off. The boars probably won't get to breed, and the sow will have very low cub survival, because the sows will be in poor condition. There may be some small contribution contribution to the next generation's numbers, but the contribution will be dominated by chance (stochasticity).
It's my contention, and the contention of US gov't., that harvesting a small number of Polar Bears is entirely acceptable (albeit unsustainable). If you shoot a Polar Bear, either a) it wasn't going to make a large contribution to the demographics (especially if male) or b) it frees up the limiting factor (habitat) for another animal who will now be able to make a larger contribution to the next generation. And if you keep your hunts low, the mortality will rarely make a blip on the population magnitude radar. The story is simplified slightly, yeah. And I glossed over a few things. But on the whole, it holds water.
"Wait! You said it was unsustainable. What's with that" Well, sure. Eventually, given the trends in habitat, there will be very little habitat left to Polar Bears. Short of building Styrofoam icebergs for them, there's nothing we can do about that. Thus, it's not a sustainable situation. However, it's got less to do with hunting pressure and more to do with people running coal fired power plants. Here's some cold hard facts to throw a damper on your day: There probably won't be many Polar Bears in the future, Yup'ik Language is dying, someone will have to take a cut in their lifestyle because every country can't all have it and Africans will eventually want to start eating food too, and eventually India will kick our ass economically. Oh, and there's no Santa.
So, that all said, the ban on importing Polar Bear rugs from hunts is pissing into an active volcano. Sure, it feels good, but it doesn't get anything done to Polar Bear conservation. Worse, it has the unintended consequences of cutting off the livelihood of people. And it will consume resources enforcing the ban which would be better spent doing conservation in other ways. Like, say, putting up a few few wind turbines. But if we were really serious about solving these problems, things would be different, wouldn't they?