USFWS seeks new co-management partner for polar bears
The federal agency managing polar bears in the U.S. Arctic is looking for a new co-management partner to replace the Alaska Nanuuq Commission.
According to a letter sent out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late July to several Alaska Native tribes and Native Corporations, FWS is no longer funding the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, ANC for short.
“We recently advised the Alaska Nanuuq Commission that, regrettably, due to the instability and uncertainty of their financial situation, we cannot enter into a new funding agreement to support their operations,” the letter, signed by Mary Colligan, Assistant Regional Director, USFWS Fisheries and Ecological Services, said.
In a summary of the June 2016 Polar Bear summit in Nome, the Marine Mammal Commission stated that summit participants had concerns about the Nanuuq Commission’s finances. “Of primary concern going forward were federal audits indicating inappropriate expenditures of federal dollars by ANC and whether those debts might be forgiven — a decision which FWS indicated would be reviewed by the Department of Justice,” the summary says. However, back in June, according to the summary, after having spent the better part of the two-day meeting in closed sessions, the Alaska Native participants agreed to continue to support ANC as their representative in polar bear co-management.
ANC Executive Director Jack Omelak was contacted by the Nome Nugget with a request for comment, but he directed this reporter to FWS staff for more information. Asked whether ANC is effectively dissolved, due to the absence of FWS funding, Hilary Cooley, FWS Polar Bear Program Lead answered, “The USFWS does not have a co-management agreement with ANC. Any further questions as to their status should be directed to ANC.”
The Alaska Nanuuq Commission was formed in 1994 and was partner to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the co-management of polar bears. According to its website, ANC represented Alaska Native polar bear hunters and it was the “primary Native organization to advance the conservation of polar bears through representation of Alaska’s polar bear users in all issues of polar bear management.”
Now, FWS is looking for ways to create a new co-management framework for polar bear subsistence use of the Alaska-Chukotka bear population.
This comes at a time when a 2010 U.S.—Russia Bilateral Commission agreement was about to be implemented, causing a fair amount of anxiety amongst hunters due to a harvest quota. According to USFWS website, “in 2000, the Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population (hereafter the “U.S.-Russia Bilateral Agreement”) was signed establishing a four-member U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission (hereafter the “Commission”), consisting of a federal and Native representative from each country.”
The agreement included a quota of 58 bears, equally shared between United States and Russia. “The commission adopted an upper limit on harvest from the Alaska-Chukotka population of 19 female and 39 male polar bears per year based on the recommendation of the scientific working group and identified subsistence needs,” explained FWS external affairs liaison Andrea Medeiros. “That harvest limit has been re-established by the commission each year, and is split evenly between Native peoples of Alaska and Chukotka.” The Alaskan share of the harvest is 29 polar bears, including nine females. This recommendation was based on a population estimate of 2,000 bears. “We know that the estimate of 2,000 bears used in 2010 is outdated and are expecting to have a new population estimate in the next couple of years,” added Medeiros.
“It is important to us that communities affected by the quota understand that we are not moving forward with regulations on January 1, 2017,” said Andrea Medeiros. “We also want people to understand that while we are not entering into a co-management agreement with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, we recognize the importance of a co-management partnership and are contracting with IPCoM [Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals] to help us engage with communities to develop a vision for a co-management partnership.”
Although the agreement was reaffirmed every year since 2010, the FWS has not yet enforced it, according to Hilary Cooley.
The loss of the co-management partner puts off the implementation of the bilateral agreement for now. “We hope to establish regulations with a co-management partner, who will help manage the Alaska-Chukotka population in accordance with the agreement,” said Cooley in an email correspondence with the Nugget. “In our process of finding a co-management partner, we are working closely with tribal governments and Alaska Native organizations. Until that co-management partner has been identified, we do not know what the regulations will look like. However, we are seeking a co-management partner who is able to negotiate a regional harvest management system in accordance with Title V of the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act] and the agreement, including promulgation of regulations, allocation, monitoring, and enforcement.”
According to Cooley, FWS is soliciting ideas about the content of regulation to facilitate implementation of harvest regulations for polar bears in the Alaska-Chukotka population. “In order to ensure the annual taking limit established by the U.S.-Russia Polar Bear Commission is not exceeded, we believe it is necessary and appropriate to require more timely reporting, and we also need to ensure that hunters have effective notice of current information regarding the number and sex of bears that have been harvested relative to the annual taking limit. Therefore, we are seeking ideas and insights on the most effective ways to keep hunters informed of the number of bears available to harvest during the course of a season and when the annual taking limit has been met; and the quickest and easiest ways for hunters to report their harvest,” Cooley wrote.
The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent federal government agency charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to further the conservation of marine mammals, including polar bears.
The commission traveled to Alaska for listening sessions in February 2016, including meetings in Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow. According to the summary of the Polar Bear summit that was held in Nome in June, the summit was prompted by concerns voiced during the listening sessions. The concerns were the Alaska Native representation in the co-management, ways to improve communication between management partners and the hunting communities and the implementation of the bilateral agreement.
According to the summary, 49 representatives from Barrow, Brevig Mission, Diomede, Kaktovik, Kotzebue, Nome, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay, Savoonga, Shishmaref, Wainright and Wales attended the June meeting.
This version reflects an update from the printed article in the Nome Nugget.