The polar bear was a mile away and began running toward the dog sled, quickly closing the distance on the frozen Arctic waters of Canada’s Resolute Bay. One of Mark Beeler’s Inuit guides released two dogs to distract it while Beeler, a skilled bow hunter, quickly shot three arrows, piercing the animal’s heart and lungs.
“You’re thinking, I can’t believe I paid this much money to be this close to a dangerous bear,” said Beeler, who was less than 15 yards from the nearly 10-foot-tall adult male when it came down.
The guides skinned the bear on site, quartered the meat to bring back to their village and gave the bear’s fat and intestines to the dogs as a reward. Beeler remembers the experience as if it were yesterday. But it was four and a half years ago, and his polar bear trophy is stuck in Canada, blocked from import into the United States because a month after Beeler’s hunt, the Interior Department listed the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
While Beeler had filed immediately for an import permit, the bear he shot — its wet-tanned hide, bleached skull, claws and penis bone — remains in cold storage at an exporter in Calgary, at the cost of about $200 a year.
It is one of 41 pelts taken by American hunters in the spring of 2008 and still stored in Canada. Both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and many lawmakers support letting them in, though legislation allowing their one-time import is stalled in the Senate.
At the same time, U.S. officials are pressing for a ban on the global commercial trade in polar bear parts. The proposal — which will come up for a vote in March when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) convenes in Bangkok — has divided polar bear advocates and pits the United States against Canada.
There are between 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in the wild in Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, according to the most recent analysis, which was conducted in the early 1990s. Scientists predict these numbers will drop sharply within a few decades as summer sea ice shrinks. Of those nations, only Canada allows sport hunting.
About 800 bears are killed each year in subsistence hunting: Roughly 400 to 500 of them are exported annually for sale, most of them from Canada.
Polar bears currently can be traded as long as the exporting country certifies the existing harvest is sustainable; the United States is trying for the second time to prohibit the commercial trade altogether.
“Can you have a sustainable harvest of a population when the best available science says that they will suffer a 66 percent decline by the middle of the century?” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel M. Ashe said in an interview. He said that protecting the reproducing adults will help buffer against future climate impacts. “What we’re trying to do is to get ahead of the curve in this case rather than waiting until the polar bear is on the verge of extinction before addressing these other factors.”
But some environmentalists such as Sybille Klenzendorf, who directs the species conservation program for the World Wildlife Fund in the United States, said international policymakers can help the bears more by focusing on curbing climate change and offshore drilling in the Arctic.
“We really want to address the threats that are most urgent to save the species,” Klenzendorf said. “The ban on international trade is not at the top of that list.”
She added that the push could alienate aboriginal communities in Canada, who are interacting most closely the bears.
Still, there is no question the global trade of polar bears is increasing, fueled by demand from China and Russia. The number of polar hides offered at auction has risen from 60 in 2010 to 225 in 2012, according to the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), while the average sales price rose from $2,186 to $5,211 during that period.
This rise in demand is spurring poaching in Russia, though authorities lack precise numbers.
Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta biological sciences professor and polar bear expert, said the question of whether to ban the polar bear commercial trade is challenging.
Hunting quotas in Canada are set by territorial and provincial officials rather than federal ones, and licenses are reserved for aboriginal Canadians, though they can sell the licenses and bear parts to others. Hunting quotas have risen recently: The Nunavut territory’s decision to increase the Western Hudson Bay take from eight bears in the 2009-10 season to 21 bears in 2011-12 and 24 bears in the current season alarmed many researchers.
“At a time when we should be getting more conservative with our harvest policies, instead we seem to be dealing with the status quo, that everything’s fine, everything’s wonderful,” Derocher said. “That doesn’t fit with what the serious polar bear scientists are saying across Canada.”
Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist for the advocacy group Polar Bears International, said he and his colleagues “are struggling with this, what’s the best thing to do. . . . If Canada is barred from exporting polar bears, it’s not entirely clear that it will result in harvest reductions.”
Several indigenous Canadian officials said their hunts provide income as well as meat for their communities. Selling a hunting license to a foreigner provides “a source of income that’s not available anywhere else in that community,” said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, who directs the wildlife and environment department for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., a tribal corporation.
“It’s helping out the Inuit Joe on the street,” he said, adding that it gives them an incentive to manage polar bear populations responsibly.
Terry Audla, who represents four Inuit regions as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said his members can scale back hunting if global warming causes the bears’ numbers to plummet. “There already is a management system in place that will react to that,” Audla said.
Adam Sweet, spokesman for Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, wrote in an e-mail that the annual harvest “is controlled under a hunting quota system that is based on both scientific data and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge. . . . The Canadian government is committed to conserving the polar bear, an iconic species of the North, and also to ensuring that the rights of Aboriginal peoples are maintained and respected.”
Changing the status of a species’ listing at CITES is difficult because it requires a two-thirds majority. Both U.S. officials and environmental groups are targeting the European Union because its 27 members vote as a bloc and could swing the vote.
At the moment the Europeans — who will finalize their position by the end of February — appear divided, with countries such as Germany and Poland backing the U.S. proposal and Denmark and Italy opposing it. A U.K. government spokeswoman said Britain, a key vote, is still considering the proposal.
Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission’s director-general for the environment, said in an interview that he sees it as “relatively unlikely that we would back a call for restrictions” in the polar bear trade because he does not think the evidence justifies it. “We want to have in CITES fact-based decisions, and not politicized decisions.”
But Andrew Wetzler, who directs NRDC’s land and wildlife program, said polar bears meet the convention’s criteria easily: “Species that are threatened by climate change, of which polar bears are a prime example, that are in commercial trade are exactly the kind of species CITES should focus on, and the E.U. should focus on.”
In the meantime, U.S. hunting advocates such as Conservation Force president John Jackson III are still working to bring back polar bear trophies he estimates are worth $2.4 million; they likely would have been shipped into the country had a federal judge not ordered the bears’ threatened status to take effect immediately, instead of giving the usual 30-day notice. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “It’s part of a legal take. The sentimentality of the moment doesn’t override fair play.”
Beeler questions the need for a ban on the global polar bear trade, noting the adult males he and others target often eat young male cubs. “Killing a few male bears doesn’t make a difference,” he said.
Beeler has a corner reserved for the polar bear in his trophy room, and he said be believes eventually it will end up there. “Somebody just needs to sit down and say, ‘It just doesn’t make sense. They’re already dead.’ ”
Steve Smith, another hunter who shot a polar bear in the spring of 2008, visited his trophy at a taxidermist last year during a business trip to Toronto. He now wonders whether he will ever mount it.
“They took it out and unfolded it,” he said. “It was beautiful. It brought back a lot of memories.”
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.