Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), by their very nature, and the extreme, remote environment in which they live, are inherently difficult to study and monitor. Monitoring polar bear populations is both arduous and costly and, to be effective, must be a long-term commitment. There are few jurisdictional governments and management boards with a mandate for polar bear research and management, and many have limited resources. Although population monitoring of polar bears has been a focus to some degree within most jurisdictions around the Arctic, of the 19 subpopulations recognised by the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), adequate scientific trend data exist for only three of the subpopulations, fair trend data for five and poor or no trend data for the remaining 11 subpopulations (PBSG 2010a). There are especially critical knowledge gaps for the subpopulations in East Greenland, in the Russian Kara and Laptev seas, and in the Chukchi Sea, which is shared between Russia and the United States. The range covered by these subpopulations represents a third of the total area (approx. 23 million km2) of polar bears’ current range, and more than half if the Arctic Basin is included. If we use popular terms, we know close to nothing about polar bears in this portion of their range.
As summer sea-ice extent, and to a lesser degree, spring-time extent, continues to retreat, outpacing model forecasts (Stroeve et al. 2007, Pedersen et al. 2009), polar bears face the challenge of adapting to rapidly changing habitats. There is a need to use current and synthesised information across the Arctic, and to develop new methods that will facilitate monitoring to generate new knowledge at a pan-Arctic scale. The circumpolar dimension can be lost when efforts are channelled into regional monitoring. Developing and implementing a plan that harmonises local, regional and global efforts will increase our power to detect and understand important trends for polar bears, with particular emphasis on how climate warming may differentially affect populations and habitats. Current knowledge is inadequate for a comprehensive understanding of the present and future impact of climate warming and its interaction with other stressors. The cumulative effects are unknown (Laidre et al. 2008). An integrated pan-Arctic research and monitoring plan will improve the ability to detect future trends, identify the most vulnerable subpopulations and guide effective conservation. There is a need to direct attention and resources where data are deficient to understand the mechanisms that drive trends, and to facilitate more effective and timely conservation response.