On 14 May 2008 the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, citing the melting of Arctic sea ice as the primary threat to the polar bear. While listing the polar bear as a threatened species, the Interior Department added a seldom-used stipulation to allow oil and gas exploration and development to proceed in areas inhabited by polar bears, provided companies continue to comply with the existing restrictions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The main new protection for polar bears under the terms of the listing is that hunters will no longer be able to import trophies from the hunting of polar bears in Canada.
The polar bear is found in the Arctic Circle and adjacent land masses as far south as Newfoundland Island. Due to the absence of human development in its remote habitat, it retains more of its original range than any other extant carnivore. While they are rare north of 88°, there is evidence that they range all the way across the Arctic, and as far south as James Bay in Canada. They can occasionally drift widely with the sea ice, and there have been anecdotal sightings as far south as Berlevåg on the Norwegian mainland and the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk.
It is difficult to estimate a global population of polar bears as much of the range has been poorly studied; however, biologists use a working estimate of about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide.
Most polar bears inhabit the Arctic and around the North Pole (not including polar bears that are captive). The countries that encompass the Arctic include Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and Alaska (United States). Polar bears thrive in these Arctic conditions because this is where their food sources are, and their bodies are made to handle the harsh Arctic conditions, even the winter one.
Polar bears spend a great deal of their time in the Arctic Ocean hunting and searching for food. In the winter months they walk on the ice and look for seals and in the summer months they wait on the shore for them. Polar bears know how to use the climate and the land conditions to their benefit when hunting for seals. They will walk on an ice floe (a sheet of floating ice) and look for hole or cracks in the ice. Since seals have to breathe at some time they wait there for a seal to come up for breath. There are also other areas of the Arctic Ocean that do not freeze, polynyas, these are also great areas for the polar bear to find its favorite food, seals.
In the southern range of polar bears, the shorter sea ice season has decreased the amount of time bears can hunt for their prey. Sea ice break-up keeps these bears on shore. This forces them to spend the summer without significant feeding, relying on their fat stores from the previous summer to survive.
Many polar bears now suffer from malnutrition and others face starvation, especially females with cubs. Polar bear populations in Canada’s Hudson Bay have declined by 22 percent since the 1990s and researchers predict up to 73 percent of pregnant females in this population could fail to bring their cubs to term, given current and anticipated sea ice conditions. Climate change is also resulting in more habitat fragmentation.
In the Arctic, most industrial development has been on relatively small pieces of land. As summer sea ice retreats, a new ocean is emerging, which allows more opportunities for industrial development at sea and on larger parcels of land. At the same time, the retreating ice is resulting in more polar bears spending longer periods on land. These factors combined are putting polar bears and industrial activities on a potential collision course.